podcast scripts

Restoring Humanity to...Purpose (Changing the Focus of School)

The following is the transcript for our recent podcast. Listen here!

I was reading an article in The Atlantic titled “The Purpose of Education - According to Students” and the dialogue within was horrifying. “What do you think is the purpose of education?” One student responds, “....I’m seeing the role of school - of education - basically a pastime, like a public babysitter for whoever feels their children should be here.” Another, “....they don’t really teach you about how to go and get a job, how to live on your own, pay this, pay that, when you actually have to do it. Or actually prepare you for college and dealing with that.” And a student says, “You’re just learning to take a test. You’re not learning to actually be happy.” Quite frankly, I find it perplexing that this isn’t a bigger deal... (Slapik, 2017.)

Children are faced with a ton of pressure on what they will do when they graduate - and that pressure is exacerbated in their teenage years when while soul-searching they face depression, anxiety, and fear. The fear of judgment by others, but also there’s a kind of sustained apathy - which is brought upon by years of irrelevant schooling. Personally, my students seem more purposeless than ever.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot of history surrounding the explicit focus of purpose for students - perhaps due to its relatively new historical place. To define what I mean by “purpose”, I’m referring to a meaningful life’s work that you focus on - and you understand why this is your life’s work. It’s not an immediate goal - but why you continue to push forward in whatever you do. Prior to the modern era, most children went into a familiar field - such as what their family did, or simply married and had children. Only the very affluent would have much choice in their further education, and much of that collegiate experience was soul-searching.

The earliest substantial writings I could find of searching for passion in schools were studies of Dr. William Damon of Stanford University in the late 2000s. He wrote “Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life” which centered on the “directionless drift” that most students move through schooling with. He found that only 1 in 5 people from ages 12-22 could express what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go, and most importantly - why they wanted to do these things. Then, 60% had some purposeful actions, but didn’t have the time nor commitment to really care about them. And finally, 25% had literally no aspirations. These studies were conducted at the same time of many exploring meaning and psychological benefits - almost entirely in the late 90s and through today.

Prior to this, it was assumed that through schooling, students would find their purpose as they grew up - but there was no explicit intent to have students reflect on this matter, outside of the Free School movement and other counterculture and unschooling programs to the traditional public school system. In fact, since the 1960s and the US worriment of our place academically versus other countries, traditional education has doubled down on standardized knowledge through “back to basics” movements, calls for national standards reform, and accountability measures. Ironically, the beginning schools of the United States - which were more focused on community goals and serving the needs of its students - seem to have more intent toward finding purpose than the ubiquitous schooling models of today. In fact, we could arguably state that common schooling that from roughly the 1850s on, although having benefits in reading, writing, and providing a basic education for all, overtime seemed to more and more distance itself from finding purposeful actions for students (Sugimoto & Carter, 2015.)

Now, we live in an era where 1 in 5 kids have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Students feel empty, depressed, and anxious. Suicide rates are rising - with a 40 year high among girls in 2015. Obviously, there’s a lot more to this than just school - we also need efforts toward normalizing mental health treatment and talking more about these problems - but it’s undeniable that for many of our students, school is purposeless. Not only does the content seem outdated and contrived, but they’re forced to sit through it for 8 hours a day, sometimes even forced to do it into late afternoons. It’s incredibly odd that we wouldn’t be focused on kids finding their place in the world. Perhaps that’s a grandiose question for a 14-year-old, but that’s the exact question they’re asking and seeking the answer to (Snow & McFadden, 2017.)

Much of the research I’m about to refer to is compiled from our previous podcast guest’s organization, Patrick Cook-Deegan’s Project Wayfinder, as well as Dr. William Damon’s formative work, Path to Purpose. Again, this is quite a new field, but the results are staggering and really, if you think about it, common sense.

First, in 2013, Patrick L. Hill, Rachel Sumner, and Anthony Burrow found that individuals who had proactive engagement toward finding their purpose had greater agency and openness to experience, which coincidentally resulted in greater emotional and social well-being. Whereas individuals who found their purpose through mostly reactionary means, as in, someone forced it upon them or they just happened to start doing something, were less likely to feel what they did mattered. Obviously, people that sought out finding their purpose and acted upon it were happier (Hill, Sumner, & Burrow, 2014.)

In the same vein, further research by William Damon, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Cotton in 2010, compiled how adolescents view their sense of purpose in their formative years. In summary, students spent little to no time on soul-searching, and in the hyper-communicative world of social media and advertising, with a frenzy of people telling you what you should be, students are stressed out. They’re told to find passions or things that interest them, but that’s often in spite of what they’re already doing in school (Damon, Menon, & Cotton Bronk, 2003.)

And it should come as no surprise that 9th and 10th grade students, according to the work of Jane Gillham, had greater life satisfaction and less depressive symptoms when they found meaning and love in their lives (Gillham et al., 2011.)

Another interesting note is Martha Sayles’ research, where she studied a diverse school system - accounting for gender, ethnicity, their egocentrism, and their purpose in life. Students who scored low in having a purpose or meaning to life were significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as using dangerous drugs or drinking and driving. In addition, Anglo-American children reported having much less of a purpose in their lives and were drastically more prone to risky behavior than their minority classmates (Sayles, 1995.)

In a landmark study by Kendall Cotton Bronk, she found that adolescents had incredibly close ties between their purpose and their identity. The more teenagers understood their place in the world - the more purposeful actions they took - and the more they understood who they were. They would then take incredible steps to be the person they wanted to be - to meet their life’s purpose (Cotton Bronk, 2012.)

And there’s still a couple more highlights. Dr. Cotton Bronk then worked with Patrick Hill and Anthony Burrow in 2014 to find that grit - as in working hard to achieve your goals - had a substantial correlation with those who had a life direction and commitment to a purpose. Furthermore, those still confused about their futures tended to have very little commitment (Hill, Burrow, & Cotton Bronk, 2014.)

Finally, important research by Kyla Machell, David Disabato, and Todd Kashdan found that teenagers living in poverty, who often have increased antisocial and decreased prosocial behavior, can alleviate and escape from these mindsets by finding purpose in life - the ultimate resiliency factor - to develop skills and a mindset to achieve in spite of adversity (Machell et al.,2015.)

So...why focus on purpose? I don’t really know how someone could not answer....of course you would focus on purpose. In addition to all that research previously presented, there are hundreds of studies that correlate increased and better life outcomes - even mortality rates - to having a purpose.

The argument that arises is - do we need well-rounded people? As in, are there certain things that everyone has to know in order to be successful? Then, after we figure out what those things are - we then devote all that time to achieving and finding student’s life goals. Of course, in the modern school system - nearly 100% of our time is on what the state has determined as a successful, well-rounded person. No one wants to give up their valuable class time to soul-searching when they’re meeting their standards, and most teachers value their standards more than others - meaning they’re less likely to solely give up their time.

In order for a purposeful, meaningful classroom to exist, students almost have to hyper-specialize. They can’t find meaning from surface-level ideas - especially when those ideas are being thrown at them day to day in the same vein as their online lives. To deep dive into a particular topic - especially when that topic isn’t related to our core subject areas - is practically impossible in a traditional system. And we still will likely place value on some topics we believe everyone should know.

Personally, I think that the only takeaway I want 100% of my students to understand as a result of my American History class are tolerance and empathy - developing anti-racist, anti-sexist, and pro-diverse viewpoints. And I’m sure that most subjects have a key, underlying reason why they want students to know their subject. I’m not sure if my views of having a history major background influences what I deem important to all (after all, there are so many non-school subject majors who would bring something else to to the table) - but if we truly factored down our subjects, we could be providing students 80% of a focus on what they want to do.

This viewpoint is counter to a purely self-directed school, but in my progressive mindset I do believe that there is some value in “sparking curiosity” of young students through an effective teacher, but I do believe that the relationship should be consensual - you can’t force students into learning things. My fear of purely individualized classrooms - such as MOOCs and other ed-tech individualistic endeavors - is the loss of community. If one solely hyper-specializes to find their purpose, but never sees that connection to others or interacts with their peers, they’re essentially a robot, not a human with purpose.

All that being said, helping students find a purpose in school isn’t rocket science in terms of its actual implementation, but it is a bureaucratic nightmare when it involves giving up what’s already there. To teach purpose, we just need to let students explore the world according to their desires, present them with things that spark their curiosity, and provide resources for them to reflect and interact with each other. We need to value their thoughts and give them opportunities to specialize in projects that interest them, which they can then pursue with a mentor - the teacher - assisting them when they need it.

None of this works if students have to complete x amount of work each week in each subject, or are tested on a slew of mandated knowledge that ultimately is forgotten or irrelevant. Although it is surprising how easy it can be to rig this system in your favor - such as drilling for a state test a week before it is given for substantially high results, even when you barely cared about it in the months before.

Operating a class where you give students time - or even better - a school gives students time - to just seek out answers is worthwhile. Developing close relationships with every student where you know what their interests are - and help guide them on their journey - is life changing and so incredibly important. This isn’t supposed to be a “genius hour” or a fraction of school - it should be the other way around - the hour of time would be the mandated knowledge, with the rest being up to the individual or class.

All of this ties together with other topics of this podcast: grading, critical pedagogy, reformative justice, and various conversations with those looking to reform schools. The solution is just to listen, learn, provide time, and give decision-making to the individual needs of students - meaning schools all look very different to each other and have their own solutions to problems. Notably, that means that schools are listening to their students to develop their frameworks, not assuming or making judgment calls on what their students can do. But to the overall point, our major issue is in convincing legislators, school boards, administrators, and the public that this all matters. When you write or say it - it makes complete sense - but to actually change the cultural discourse of public education takes a lot of work.

Perhaps the next step is to bring up a discussion of purpose in school. Find the one thing that sparks educators to rise up and demand change - and maybe purpose is that calling. Each of these puzzle pieces in creating a relevant schooling system works in tandem with another - and once we find the discussion that ignites our local school - the quicker we’ll be reforming every notion toward progressive education.

Restoring Humanity to...Teaching (Critical Pedagogy) Script

The following is (likely a poorly written) transcript that served as the script for our podcast:

The founder of critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire wrote:

“[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Freire’s experience was unique for an educator. Born in 1921, he was raised by a middle class family albeit in one of the poorest regions of Brazil, and quickly became infatuated with educating those who were marginalized. Central to Freire’s understanding of education was his father, who taught him about his culture with authority, but remarkably with compassion and understanding.

During the Great Depression, the Freire Family struggled and moved to a poorer neighborhood in another area of town. Freire lost multiple years of secondary school in this struggle, and in general he was considered a mediocre student. Even when transitioning to law school at age 20, he struggled to maintain high grades as he had to work to help provide for his family.

Education was core to Freire, so he began to teach a Portuguese language class shortly after obtaining his law degree. At the same time, he began to lecture trade union members on their rights and responsibilities. Soon after, his work became recognized and he was appointed to the Social Service for Industry as chief of the Department of Education and Culture.

In the Social Service for Industry position, Freire constantly involved parents and children into his conversations. He worked with families to solve issues of malnutrition and child labor and empowered families to take charge of their own problems, rather than rely on his organization. These were called “worker’s clubs” and were almost like small governments within themselves aimed at solving the needs of the working class. That being said, Freire was forced to resign after criticism of his open, democratic leadership style which was considered to be too soft.

Despite all this, he began to work with Alceu de Amoroso Lima and “new school” teacher Anisio Teixeira in building glass-roots schools. Together, they worked together to build K-Adult learning programs. They brainstormed a new system...aptly titled the “Paulo Freire system” - which utilized the again, aptly titled “Paulo Freire Method” where teachers, students, and families would build curriculums together, as well as use methods such as action groups, debates, and roundtable discussions to work through content as well as pedagogical problems.

This work brought Freire to teach part-time at the Universidade de Raceife, where he became involved with the Catholic Student’s Club, which was deemed a radical organization who fought for health, social services, housing, and more for the working class. They met with those living in slums to talk about their problems, help educate them for speaking up for themselves, and bring their issues to the proper authorities. Freire was determined to find a solution to his core issue: how to education all people.

Freire began to observe and write about one of his core problems with the educational model: people are being manipulated by their education - education isn’t coming from what they want, but rather the government or someone with something to gain. This will later translate to the “banking model” - which we’ll talk about in a second.

He continued to find ways to reform education and speak out about issues with the dominant culture controlling educational systems. He wanted to educate the illiterate to take charge of their own problems - by teaching them directly about what those problems were and giving them the voice to do so. Reformists and leftist groups helped Freire form the National Plan of Literacy Training, which had overwhelming financial support. However, in 1964, Brazil faced a military coup which ended all potential success of this program.

Freire was sooned arrested for his “subversive teachings” and exiled. He visited Chile, the United States, and Geneva to lecture on education and what was now deemed “critical pedagogy.” Returning to Brazil after some government issues were solved, he lived much of his life lecturing as a Brazilian professor, continuing to push for a “reinvention of power.” Often to the dismay of the government - who criticized him, among many others in a position of power.

Freire published many books in his life, most notably Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and served as an inspiration for many great writers, professors, and thinkers such as Henry Giroux, Antonia Darder, bell hooks, Paul Willis, Peter McLaren, and Shirley Steinberg. His connection with those who struggled the most - and his unwavering support even in his own personal struggles - has led many to appreciate and follow his teachings, even though his work has never been explicitly fundamentally supported by school systems, at least not on a large scale or for a long period of time.

So what IS critical pedagogy? Now that we know a little about the guy who started it, let’s analyze what’s all involved. If you’ve ever read Freire, you’ll know that it’s incredibly hard to follow - it’s been interpreted in different ways, it changes from book to book, it’s translated, and frankly, it’s very dry and academic. It comprises elements of Marxism and anti-colonial thinking, but it doesn’t support any particular point of view. And it doesn’t offer any explicit methods for schools to follow.

That being said, there’s so much we can learn from Freire’s ideas which have been built upon over the years. I’m going to attempt to define some of the key points:

The Hidden Curriculum:

These are the unwritten or unintended rules and lessons of schools. We often talk about the curriculum: lessons, activities, teaching methods, and more - but the hidden curriculum is what students may learn about themselves and others as a result of this work.

  • For example: School often teaches students that to be a “good student” is to become uniform and do what you’re told. Meet the rubric exactly, don’t talk when you’re not told to, and partake in a certain number of required courses, extracurriculars, and sports. The overall lesson may have been to prepare someone for college, but was the hidden message that you should never rebel? Never question anything or never find something you truly love to do?

  • One could think about how you’re not allowed to ask for help on a test, or work with others (that’s cheating) - but in the real world isn’t this normal?

  • Or perhaps you could go through an entire history class and only hear one or two, “safe” African American voices - making the implication that either African Americans rarely achieve or marginalizing this history for racist reasons.

  • Or maybe the rules itself reflect a hidden curriculum, maybe certain clothes are banned in inner city communities but not mentioned at all in the suburbs? It’s interesting to note how inner-city classrooms tend to have more uniform policies than everywhere else: this has cultural ramifications that are important to notice.

The Banking Model:

In a way, this is Freire’s core principal. The banking model refers to seeing students as empty vessels waiting to be filled by their knowledgeable teacher. He argued that the banking model, “attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” Like other reformist thinkers of the 20th century, Freire believed the state-mandated curriculum to be destructive to student’s individualistic thinking.

This, of course, is widely present in schools throughout the United States. Freire describes teaching talking about “reality as if it were motionless, static compartmentalized, and predictable” - and that they “fill” students with narration - without any significance.

When the teacher is a narrator, students simply just memorize narrated content. These “filled’ students are now not only full of this mandated knowledge, which is often unimportant, but have been transformed to acting like a depository - they no longer question things or think outside the box. Walk into any classroom taught traditionally, especially a high school classroom, and tell students to learn whatever they want or do a truly creative project without bounds - they’ll give you a blank look. Hell, I’ve had students Google “how to be creative” enough times to make me want to revolt against the education system itself.

Furthermore, students in the banking model are seen as knowing absolutely nothing before a teacher enters the room - they’re ignorant and their cultural background, their history, their family life - everything is ignored. In a standardized education system, “know your students” often translates to just “know their name” or “find a way to give them their state mandated medicine in a creative way” - not figure out what they want.

In Freire’s own words, here are the dichotomies of the banking model:

To add, I love this quote: “the interests of the oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them.” Teachers often see their “bad” students as lazy and incompetent while those who do whatever they say as smart and great leaders.

The goal of education should not be to integrate those historically oppressed into this system, but to transform the structure itself so people can be themselves.

The Culture of Silence:

Continuing the oppressed and oppressor narrative, Freire described two societies: one that is culturally alienated and one that is dominated. The alienated society is dependent on those who oppress it, and their alienation is imposed by colonial rule and a culture of silence. As in, the alienated society typically does not have a voice - and rarely talks about its issues- and if it does, it is suppressed very quickly...often violently.

Freire made it his life’s work to giving a voice to this silenced culture. By giving a voice, this isn’t literally just letting them speak - but giving them the tools to recognize their marginalization and transformative power to creatively overcome their problems: for example, talking about their neighborhood’s history and government actions toward it, or about workers rights at their parent’s jobs. In more well-off areas, it would be humanizing the positions of those oppressed by society, and giving students tools to empower others rather than continue their marginalization.

Bringing up silenced voices is often political, as it goes against the will of the ruling class - it will talk about corporations, political parties, and the state standards. Freire did not believe education could be neutral - if one is going to empower students, they must take a risk by talking about power structures and politics. This risk is one paramount to recognizing the culture of silence.

These core tenants are crucial to reimagining our education system. But how would we ever put them into practice?

Critical pedagogy keeps being written about, people keep bringing it up...but how many of us actually attempt to transform our classrooms? To reimagine our system without the traditional teacher / student dichotomy is to go against almost every facet of a teacher training program, and to disrupt the narrative that communities mostly expect from their schools.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to attempt to realize what this classroom would be: a teacher would work with students to construct a curriculum, and while a teacher would have their professional input, students would be in charge of making decisions. The classroom would explore problems in student’s lives, and hypothesize, as well as realize how to solve them. The classroom would be an extension of academics into practical life advice - it would explore political discourse and find ways to disrupt the narrative: whether students were the ones being oppressed or in born into a system of the oppressor.

Eliminating the state-mandated curriculum requires a large risk with a gigantic reward. Yes, there is, of course, almost no way within the public model as a lone teacher to do this without instant calls for resignation, but one can subversively teach content relevant to student desires while feigning ignorance to authority or teaching the bare minimum when forced. We need to recognize actual problems in the world and talk about them - and we must reject the neutral, milquetoast curriculum in favor of one that engages students through what they want. How do we do this? It’s actually quite easy...ask what they want. That takes a lot more work than saying it - and you realize - but every time we have students developing our curricula, we’re doing something right. Before you teach something, let students accept or deny it. Let them analyze what activities your doing and what projects you may propose - give them time to not only tinker with these ideas, but reject them entirely if they hate it. Let them give out entirely new ideas and develop that curriculum with them.

This is easier with younger students. You’ll see the effects of the hidden curriculum and banking model with older kids - they won’t know how to react to your ideas. They may think you’re lazy or don’t know what you’re doing if you ask for proposals...they may not know how to think for themselves. In fact, the process of developing the curricula together will probably be a stronger learning moment, full of learning everywhere, that will equate to more than they get from what they envision.

Freire’s work never gives a step by step, so it’s difficult to offer direct solutions outside of just saying: communicate openly. Don’t think that “student choice” means that you have a preset idea of what students will do, but are offering options. For me, the hardest hurdle to jump in defeating the banking model when Freire says, “students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher.” Designing a classroom that’s really open - where discipline, norms, content, and learning is all agreed upon - it’s hard to do. And to couple that with mandatory seat time, compulsory education...well that seems like a catch-22 in of itself.

Simply stated, in my opinion the best way to adapt this pedagogy is to be radically open and take radical risks. It’s not a small step of maybe letting students help out with a unit here and there...it’s introducing them to the class with a blank slate, communicating to them what the purpose of the class is according to the state, explain the history behind these decisions - heck even explain the banking model - and give them the tools to take charge of learning. That requires room for mistakes, many hours of lost (air quotes) “content time”, and tons of collaborative work. Deprogramming students really has to go beyond one classroom - multiple teachers have to work together over multiple years - especially in high school - to train students not to be trained. Kids naturally learn - they won’t stop respecting you if you give them the tools to be self-sufficient, albeit you’ll need to earn their respect rather than force it.

Administration must let students not only have choice in their classrooms, but choice at large. Students should be in meetings, they should have a student council that isn’t just the best students as handpicked by teachers, but a random assortment that represents the entire student body that can reform at will. And they should have real voice - they have to be involved in every step of every process. It’s possible in a public school, it’s just that no one really cares, doesn’t believe children can handle it, or are too self-absorbed in their teaching. There’s nothing, outside of a very few choice topics like IEPs, that students and families can’t bring a perspective to.

The more people that understand critical pedagogy and apply it to their teaching, the more drastic the change. So many educators are turning to books or ed gurus who preach to make their teaching better - but better teaching should not translate to doing the traditional model better. If we’re doing that, we may as well say we’re just really good at forcing kids to do something. It’s an interesting trait to be sure, but it’s not liberating - it’s not really caring about kids - it’s not really the point of education. If we believe that education provides the means of empowerment for anyone, then we must instill values at every level that reinforce openness, communication, and recognizing real problems in our communities.  

A radical pedagogy subverts authority - and the irony is that schools are authority - they’re extensions of the government. Therefore, there’s no denying that giving voice to students has an explicit risk in the school’s designated purpose; every level of one’s community not only must have a seat at the table, they have to know why they have a seat at the table. Parents, students, community members, teachers, all must recognize the principles of critical pedagogy in order to understand they’re being oppressed by the system - if not everyone agrees with these principles, a subversive group will dismantle and work against all progress that could potentially be made. Establishing an actual learning community takes time, effort, and diligence, and won’t happen overnight.

Families are important too. They’re so often lost in the mix outside of a random email each semester. Some PTOs give credence to school events, but they often are glorified fundraising groups. Why are families not involved with every level of a school and constantly in communication? After all, they’re essentially the backbone of each child’s life - educators are just there to assist. Therefore, parent education programs on critical pedagogy - as well as constant ways for input and assistance - are needed for a educational revolution.

Teachers must band together for changes like this. If administration won’t budge, or if they’re only willing to offer a consolation prize, stick together and fight. If they continue to not care, go someplace else or bring in a third party. Radical change requires radical action. Essentially, to enact these changes, teachers are rebels. They’re fighting for what’s just - they’re really fighting for their students. They’re not talking about how research demonstrates that greeting students increases their test scores....they’re actually giving students real opportunities. It’s so tiring to see article after article talking about how to teach better when it could be translated to how to control better - we need teachers who care about kids to the point where they give up the often ill-regarded label as “teacher” and become “educators” - which in my opinion can mean so much more. An educator works with the entire community to educate and liberate and that guides others to a better future, not the top-down authoritarian figure that dictates what a better future is.

Often times we few standards as the “what” and we reach them in the “how” - critical pedagogy rejects this entire structure. It’s not about doing the existing structure in an interesting way or to sneak in some student passions every now and then, we’re actually uplifting the entire narrative in favor of “here’s what the state says you should do, I’m telling you this because of these concepts of critical pedagogy that I think you should know about, now what do you want to do about it? And what do you all want to learn today?” Essentially, we need to make learning communities to learn to fish, not fish for them - and everything in between.

Cited within:

Podcast Transcription w/ Amy Fast Ed. D

Regretfully, extreme audio issues could not let us release our podcast for May 13th with Amy Fast Ed. D. Instead, we transcribed it for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Michael: Hello and welcome to Things Fall Apart, the podcast here at the Human Restoration Project. Today we have Amy Fast on the podcast. Amy is a High School teacher turned assistant principal, advocate for progressive education, instructional coach, and author of It’s the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public EducationAn absolutely excellent read. You can find Amy on Twitter @fastcrayon, posting a blizzard of consistently retweetable messages and insights. Amy, it’s great to have you on the podcast.

Amy: Thanks for having me here.

Michael: I’m very excited and I’m actually going to jump right into this book. When I got ahold of you via Twitter and you were down — I was so excited and I saw your book…in general, I try to read whatever a guest would put out. So I snagged yours and it was — I hate to start less humbly — but it was fantastic, I thought it was great. I mean that very much. Chris and I mean a great lot of books regarding education and when I read yours, I guess maybe it was personally what I was looking for in every regard — as far as the ideas behind it, your sort of momentum as a progressive movement. What Chris and I want to do is not just say “destroy all education” and start from scratch or go directly to the notion of SDL centers or homeschooling (even though they’re good ideas), but your book and mission is more of — let’s sink our teeth back into public education.

Amy: Yeah, that’s a good way to frame it. The idea of public education as an equalizer and a way to empower students, society, and it means a lot that you love my book. Mostly because I didn’t write it because I wanted to be an author — but I was in the classroom at the time — and the ideas were those that I was living everyday. And I think sometimes when books get written they happen at the end of someone’s career, and by that time they had been out of the classroom for years or even decades — and the reason this hits home for some is because it was written from the classroom.

Michael: That’s probably one of the most interesting things. I do think the book — and Chris would second this surely — it is so well researched. And a lot of education blogs, magazines, etc. — they lack. Not all — most but not all — it tends to be…and I mean this in the nicest way possible — it’s faddish, there’s a lot of trends. Rarely are there books that have any research behind them. Mostly it’s “hey — if you roll on the floor screaming, kids will pay attention more often.” But yeah, I’m sure that’s true for any situation. When we approached your book — in a good a way it was very collegiately written — almost textbook oriented — I could see it being used for teacher training.

Amy: There actually are some colleges that use it. One of the reasons why it’s so heavy on research is that it started as a part of my doctoral research. I had this burning question and I had to get my hands on enough research to help me answer that question. I needed to know for myself what the purpose of public education should be — and I sort of arrived at it while reading so much historical and current texts and research and ideas. So that’s why it’s fairly research heavy. Even the publisher said to take a lot out of it.

Michael: It’s that because of the way it would look — footnotes, quotes?

Amy: Exactly, it would be “dense.”

Michael: I guess I would be an advocate for the latter. It can’t not be dense. When Chris and I approach this stuff, when we were designing the Human Restoration Project — it is so hard to figure out where to start. I always think, “I have to go back further.” And I’m not sure what’s happening at a certain point. And I feel like and it can’t not be dense. It needs to be, we’re dealing with 100s of years of history and education and I don’t know….I don’t know why someone would see it as a vapid.

Amy: Exactly, and it’s a huge question. It would be egotistical for me to not look at everyone else’s ideas.

Michael: So early in this book, you mention the idea that many high school mandates — and I don’t know if I can intertwine this word — but mandates and mission statements. Many of those — while they are often good intentioned, are rarely good for our children — despite us always saying, “we must do what’s best for our kids.” Do you feel like we’ve simply repeated that phrase so often that we’ve rendered it meaningless — or do you think that many actually believe achieving higher test scores or compliance to standardization is what’s best for our kids.

Amy: I think both are correct. Definitely, it’s something we say often and some would say — it’s to get through what we’re working on — without having to apply anything. We question a lot. In that room, in that meeting — trying to get the bottom of what’s best for kids. And there’s not a simple answer for that question to begin with. And yes, I think I also think and maybe I’m overly naive — I do think that most missions are born from good intentions. I really think [people believe] that if students are doing well academically, then the tasks are a good measure of that — and therefore if they do well on the test, then they’re being well prepared for society.

It’s fearful for people to think of the alternative — to unpack that this might not be true. In large, people think knowledge is power — and so, and if we measure knowledge in reading and math scores — reading and math is therefore power. And those tests must be accurate measures of someone’s knowledge in those areas. Therefore, point A to point B, if they do well on assessments and standards, then they’re doing well. I don’t fault people for thinking this way. I used to get hung up on test scores — it was the measure. It’s easier to not having to reflect and unpack [test measurement.]

Michael: It’s so refreshing to see what could be seen as naivety — instead saying I’d rather see the positive. I’m going to hope that people believe this is what’s best for our kids. I think many progressive educators tend to dig into the negative so quickly. I lean that way often, I don’t trust people sometimes. I think what you’re saying is extremely true, slowly but surely our axium of “what’s best for our kids” has become misconstrued. Why don’t we measure artistic, kindness, generosity? Well, it’s because you can’t — because it’s complex. Or rather, it’s very hard to do. I can’t just give you a test — it’s very easy to assess a math skill based off “can you do these problems?” Once you truly need to assess a human being, you start to realize in-turn, I have no business doing that. Who am I?

Amy: Exactly, [when we get into] some kind of summative measure for a school or district performing — that’s a whole different ball game. All merit tends to fall into standardized testing as success.

 

Credit: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/zip-code-better-predictor-of-health-than-genetic-code/

Michael: We teach at a fairly progressive school — and we were just discussing the ideas of school grades and what determines it. And I saw something on Twitter — and it’s fairly true — about how there already is a number that determines a school’s grade — and that’s your zip code. And we were just thinking — as a school — how can we change that? I don’t want our students’ test scores to be the metric. And you’ve discussed the notion of expo nights — sharing the work with the public — saying “here’s what actually matters.” It’s extremely complex. I want to agree with you and I do truly hope that people have been blinded and stopped thinking deeply about this — man I get nervous about if people are trying to do what’s best for kids or the bottom line.

Amy: And that’s fair.

Michael: It’s tough to mull over. [So] …I’m fascinated by the quote you chose from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” — this quote speaks volumes about the necessity of wanting to learn or rather the why we should learn as opposed to consistently focusing on the how. As an administrator, how do you encourage such a frame of mind amongst educators?

Amy: Yeah, I don’t know if I could give practical strategies for how to bring that mindset. Every day, every minute — I’m finding the pieces of wood to build the ship. We take a lot of steps to make the bottom line. The prize is more than just a test score — or competition between schools. We try to have conversations with kids, keeping in mind what the real mission is and know that my mission is not necessarily the same as those [higher up]. I need to help remind students of their purpose.

Most people got into this field with a more noble purpose than just raising student scores. When we try to bring that purpose to all of our conversations and work, the work doesn’t feel so hard — not as taxing — it isn’t as much as a burden. I can’t take a bunch of teachers’ place — they’re already overworked — but I can at least inspire them to do what they do best.

Michael: I think it’s currently pinned on your Twitter feed. Yes, the kids are so important — that’s the whole point of this. They’re our customers — they’re our goal. But you often mention they’re extremely important, if we don’t treat our teachers well — give them mental breaks and rest — then it’s all for naught.

You seem like a very present administrator — you’re always around…an administrator who tries to make themselves available and “gets in there” with their teachers.

I would argue that not many schools lack a rather moving and powerful mission statement: usually something along the lines of preparing students for the 21st century or creating life-long learners. Either way, not many would argue against these sorts of mission statements. However, as you’ve stated, these mission statement will forever remain unsuccessful if all individuals involved are not “driving in the same direction.” These seems a common issue in many schools, that while yes, there is a mission statement, not everyone is abiding by it or potentially doesn’t fully understand it. How would you suggest schools go about ensuring that all individuals truly are driving in the “right” direction?

Amy: I don’t know if I have the “silver-bullet” answer. You mentioned mission statements and “21st century learners”, “life-long learners” — why wouldn’t we want those? They sound noble, but really they’re just a means to an end. Why do we want students to be engaged? Why do we want life-long learners? Sometimes we need to take a step back and question, why do we want that? You’re likely going to land on something that everyone wants.

Our mission statement, “ignite passions, pursue purpose, rise to your work.” And we talk about that all the time whenever we interact with students. When we’re dealing with discipline, STEM classes, choir — there’s all sorts of implications. We want students to be passionate — have a purpose for learning and being there. It’s really hard when someone doesn’t buy into that piece of it. Even though my ideal of having all educators driving in the same direction — I don’t know if that’s doable — but I think it’s irresponsible to not try to create that in society.

Right now we have a critical mass of educators who are demoralized by our current mission: because…what is it? College-career readiness? What’s the “why”? That’s like telling a second grade teacher is your mission in teaching is to get kids to the third grade. You know — it’s the next part of the ladder.

Michael: Technically that’s all they think they’re doing. It reminds me a lot of kids who ask around their junior, senior year: what is the point of what I’m doing? Is it always just to get to the next step?

I like that a common theme of your rhetoric is always looking back further. It’s less about moving the same direction, but why would we move in that direction to begin with? I wonder how many educators or administrators think to themselves: everything is passion drive, student-centered…but do they think about why? Because currently college-career readiness — what does that even mean? Why are we doing it? I guess I’ve never thought about.

Amy: And I know that’s kind of the big — existential — philosophical question. I know how emotional taxing it is. If you don’t have that kind of feeling in your work — that it truly matters - or is this a noble purpose. It’s so easy to burn out in this profession — so easy to take what’s handed to you and teach it to the best of your ability — and lose sight of your potential impact if you were able to invest in what in you think was best for students. I think it’s such hard work — if you don’t feel like it matters — we see it in our kids in our classes everyday: those who live in poverty, who are socially maladjusted — constantly looking for better math scores. Working to have students being better human beings does not need to be mutually exclusive. That’s what really demoralizes teachers, is continually aiming towards targets that feel arbitrary towards someone not in the classroom — when a human being in front of them needs so much more.

Michael: And I wonder oftentimes if you start telling teachers — especially those who have been there a long time — don’t forget we need to teach the whole child — we need to understand the impact of AI and robotics…trying to examine our mission and saying we need philosophical thinkers and innovators. I see those teachers who have been around a long time saying — they agree, but they wonder to themselves, is the bottom line dependent upon who can pass my class? Unless we federally agree on this mission on what school should be — it needs to be spoken about or nothing will be solved.

Amy: And that’s the thing. What I’m hoping for is not necessarily to arrive at something: but to allow ourselves to have this conversation and not be so fearful of it. Almost everything you do is a knee jerk reaction to what’s going in society at the time — usually based on the economy — we’re constantly using public schools to improve our economy, and that’s an oversimplsitic means to choose our practices and initiatives.

I’ve talked before about how we need people in the STEM industry. If we need more STEM jobs, more industry in that area, then we’re going to ask our public schools to invest more in math and science, then test them more, and that will fix the problems. But we don’t even look at …. it’s so overly simplistic … most STEM employees that are most successful have degrees in the arts and humanities. It’s not that math and science skills made them successful — it was their passion for what they do. We’re assuming that technical or academic skills leads to success. And that’s a gross oversimplification of success.

Michael: Absolutely, I’m fascinated with the AI field. There’s a multifaceted component to what you’re saying: not only are we oversimplifying heading towards an AI or automated society — but also people think they’re preparing their kids for the future. What future are you talking about? How can you prepare someone for the future when someone doesn’t know what it is? The fact that we think — so many schools — we’ll prepare our kids for the future. Who would argue against that? But in reality, we’re not. We’re preparing students for a future that was 5 years old.

Amy: We must assume that people who come up with these missions know something we don’t.

Michael: Exactly. Which is why when we talk about mission statements, when need to seek out help from the Illuminati. Or let Elon Musk do everything. The idea that we’re preparing kids for the future in STEM — not only is that oversimplifying — but it’s also completely dead wrong.

Alex Tegmark — I bring him up every podcast — who wrote Life 3.0, they’re saying that the worst thing you could do in school is making tougher math and science standards, because you’re only teaching the “how” but not the “why.” And they’re saying what kids need nowadays is humanities — people who can think freely, openly — the arts. Things that humans innately can do. And also, teachers — we can learn from the Internet, but it’s not as adaptive and entertaining as a human being.

In your book you narrate a well orchestrated and concise picture of the history of the traditional American school culture from the late 19th century to today. Why do you believe this is important for others to understand when discussing progressive education and revolutionizing the ultimate mission statement of a ubiquitous purpose of education?

Amy: I can’t — it feels irresponsible — to say what should happen in public education without looking at what’s been done. Our public schools are pretty young…I tried a lot of things. Contrary to popular belief — a lot of times it actually works. There’s a positive and negative each time. We need to look at what we’ve tried and what has worked, and what hasn’t in the past. We’ve never really tried anything for that long. We rode this pendulum back and forth over the course of American history. At some point, we need to get off and tap our own course for what we want in schools.

It’s interesting because I talk about the movement from progressivism to traditionalism — we keep trying to get “back on track” — we lean too far, we start feeling the burdens — so we go back too far in the other direction. I want to stop that pendulum from swinging — so we need to find out why it swings. Instead of trying to right some knee jerk reaction to fix problems now — throwing everything at our teachers — people are unhealthy, our economy needs improved, every new thing at teachers to fix what’s wrong with society. It would be nice to look at what’s best for our society by looking at what’s best for every individual student.

Even though I’m a social reconstructionist — which means I believe the purpose of public schools it to impact society at large. I believe the way to do that is through each individual student. I don’t think we’ll be able to create systems and program to solve that. I think that the work we haven’t tried in history is empowering our educators — and really focusing on the humanity in our professions. I’m a fan of Sir Ken Robinson — he talks about an organic and human endeavor to invest our energy to create humans that thrives, and in-turn society that thrives. No one wants to hear that answer because no one can just sign legislation and roll out a program that makes that work. It takes work “in the weeds” and it involves trusting educators through grassroots movements. Really digging into how teachers and students believe we can help everyone succeed. That’s something we haven’t yet tried as a country. It’s important to know where we’ve been to determine the best way to move forward.

Michael: I wonder, as a side note: do you ever feel like a major issue with current education practices is the “powers that be” tend to be reactionary, rather than “letting things marinate” — so to speak?

Amy: Yes, I’m pretty guilty of that as well. I like trying things and I can be extremely impatient. We don’t let anything simmer long enough in public schools to see if they’re effective. Certainly not the entire length of K-12. We really don’t know what’s worked for individual students — they haven’t experienced these initiatives K-12.

Michael: Understanding that history is so important — it’s in your book and it makes so much sense. It is so necessary. There are so many parents, of course — when I start talking about progressivism — I am probably one of the most annoying people in our school — always wanting to push limits — and I feel like no one everyone disagrees with what I’m saying. It’s usually met with hesitance, “why would I ever do this stuff?” I feel like if more people could have a concise understanding of how we got to how we are today — if they read the ideas of Ken Robinson, Alfie Kohn, Ted Dintersmith, High Tech High — very openly and creative ideas — they would realize these ideas are so akin to those in the late 19th century.

I think your pendulum idea is perfect. It swung one way, and so quickly — Horace Mann swung it so far the other way to industrialize — get this factory line going. If more parents and administrators saw that — the “why” would materialize. This is why we need to be different — because we’re treating our children the same as when we had to make our own paper.

Amy: Right, it’s this whole notion. People say all the time, “history repeats itself.” It’s not like we’re in a different spot we haven’t been before. We tried this before. We’ve experimented in this way — and it’s already proven that there’s certain repercussions.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely — I really do believe there’s something extremely valuable to understand that history. Less people would say, “well it worked for me! Look, I’m doing fine!”

Amy: It’s sort of short-sighted when you don’t have the historical context. When you don’t have the evidence to back it up. The theme of this chat — you do work in the much bigger picture. I was a little worried that that part of the book would bore people — I tried to keep it concise.

Michael: When Chris and I were looking to create a basic version of this — a picture book idea — you could easily write a tome.

Amy: It was really hard trying to synthesize all of that. It’s so intricate of an institution. It’s tricky.

Michael: In reality, what I want to say is…everyone shut up — you’re wrong. What is one saying, “what does it matter if children are happy?” Like — look at the history of how we got here. It’s disgusting. I feel like after the historical portion of the book, you don’t need the rest of it. Why are we teaching the way that we’re teaching….about 95 years ago — a guy was like, “hey, if we control everyone, then they’ll work for us for little pay.” And it’s not a conspiracy.

Amy: It’s actuality.

Michael: We used to teach Native Americans and make sure they’re assimilated. Some of the quotes — paraphrased — destroy the Indian, save the man — we need to beat the culture out of these people. That’s how we got here! This is why the history is important. Everyone is so wrong — there’s no goodness to a lot of this. Prove that it’s right. Look at the vast history. It was funded by industrialists, the Prussian model — one that said that our citizens don’t agree with us — so let’s make them compliant and obedient.

So now this is all down and in your book, and people read it, and people are like, “yeah, but it worked for me!” So what is your threshold for “it worked”? Because you’re not dead or in jail? That’s why it worked?

Amy: Right, and I guess that’s a great thing writing about history. I’m no longer handpicking research that supports me. History is history — you can look it up yourself. I think it speaks for itself.

Michael: A part of me is then like — well it’s history, so someone had to have seen it — but people don’t know, “why do we have bells.”

So to change this topic: you talk about the need for and importance of mental and physical health of our teachers. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of advocacy for that — I’m sure there is — when you get on your PLNs or Facebook, the Internet — it tends to be mostly, “kids kids kids kids kids.” And that’s true, but I do like a huge platform for you is mental and physical health of teachers. So, what suggestions, thoughts or plans would you have for other schools looking to bolster or put into practice tomorrow?

Amy: Well — your virtual self is always better than your actual self. I’m probably the worst person to answer this question. I self-medicate by drinking so much — I work myself to exhaustion and so…I don’t know if I have credibility to answer this question. And yet, I don’t know if this is being a woman or just how I lean as an educator — I do try to take care of the people I work with. We work hard at our school to A) recognize teachers and the work that they do. Even though it’s not taking anything off of your plate, when you feel validated, you feel inspired and the work matters. It doesn’t feel as debilitating. And B) it’s important to treat our teachers the way we want them to treat their students. Give them a break when they’re experiencing high levels of stress. Or allow them to be human when they need to be — they can’t be heroes everyday.

This profession is too important to not bring your A-game. And I wholeheartedly believe that. And I think a part of bringing your A-game is we need to allow ourselves to be fully-human, and vulnerable, and if you need to put a movie in on Monday because you’re about to lose your shit, then do it! You know what I mean? And maybe your kids need that too. The best thing I can do as an administrator is to keep it real with me about their needs and when they’re struggling. When they don’t want to do this work anymore — when they’re going through the motions — I want them to tell me “I’ve lost that passion, Amy.” I want them to feel like they’re not going to be in trouble for thinking that way.

We do a lot at our school to promote wellness, and a lot of it is grassroots that teachers start. Creating a culture — having administrators that create a culture — to keep it real, to be human, to be vulnerable — to talk about what they need at any given time.

Michael: I feel like that’s so absolutely invaluable information and advice. How often the idea of the teacher on a pedestal — or the infallible teacher — how often we feel like if a kid asks me a question I don’t know — if claims that I’m wrong — you feel defensive. Or as you just said — if I don’t have my A-game, or put on a fake persona, then I’m not going to be a perfect whatever I am. Chris and I always talk about bringing vulnerably into your classroom, and if kids see that, it’s an instantaneous 180 — the trust levels that you build, the rapport that will happen when a kid sees and says, “you look realllly tired.” You know — like you said as well — but when an administrator (and I’m thinking of a closed-office administrator) decides to take a walk around — and you’re showing a movie. You jump and exclaim, “oh god! I’m not engaging everyone right now!” and differentiating ALL my instructions — it’s horrific to think a teacher or human needs to think that way.

The idea of knowing you’re a person is okay.

Amy: Absolutely.

Michael: Believe it or not, I think that is a silver bullet.

Amy: I think I’ve been able to loosen-up, I’m a more is more person. Not a less is more person. I know I’m going to have some seasons when I have 5 hours of sleep a night, work too hard, eat crap food — I know that will follow by a season of life when work takes a back-burner for a second. Where I need a break. I need to fully be engaged in whatever season of life I’m in, knowing not just to stay there — where I am stagnant in place. That helps me — if I have to continually strive for balance everyday, I will never be balanced,

Michael: That’s great advice. Tomorrow’s going to be a new day.

This question may be unanswerable — or tends to be — and side note: I’ve only touched on iceberg-ish or only a small section of this book — maybe the first chapter — later on you mention the need for alternative education that brings humanity into the classroom — straying from the “one size fits all” and moving toward a more “multifaceted and personal process.” Why do you believe many find this transition difficult or potentially not worth making?

Amy: You know I think it’s tricky because we want to know that the work is doable and when we adapt the mindset: it’s a new horizon and we don’t know if we can control it. As a legislator, administrator, superintendent, I can’t control or easily measure that work. And so that is investing a lot of trust in educators and that’s an initiative we’ve never tried. We want to, even me, if I can implement a system that feels more doable — more control — something that’s easy — a silver bullet — but it’s not simple.

I think it’s Danny Steele who said, “no program or system in a school will ever exceed the passion of the people implementing it.” We put all our eggs in a systemic basket at the expense of those who implement it. I think that’s why people shy away from investing in humanistic work — because it’s hard, tricky to wrap your head around, you cannot control it. I think it’s worth the risk because of the historical context, and what do we have to lose?

Michael: I agree completely — I feel the same way when I talk to you as when I read your book — “Yeah, I love it!” but then also, “Why is it not like this?” It’s a double-edged sword. To wrap this up — people should follow you @fastcrayon…I think the school you work for must be very lucky to have you there, and your book is of utmost importance. I look forward to talking more people about touching this ethereal construct on what it means to have a ubiquitous mission that isn’t simply test scores being high — something that’s more valuable and why. So again, I appreciate you so much for coming on and sharing these ideas.

Amy: Thank you.