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Frankly, I’m astonished by how little school systems spend on covering purpose in students’ lives. Where do they see themselves in 10, 20 years? We leave them to the “next step” (either lost and apathetic or in incredible amounts of debt) to figure it out for themselves. How do we go about creating a purposeful society? Is it possible for a teacher to actually make a change? And, in addition, what about our sense as educators in the classroom? What about our purpose?
Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk, head of the Adolescent Morality Lab at Claremont Graduate School, Dr. Cotton Bronk is one of the founding/leading researchers surrounding youth purpose-finding.
Dr. John Cagle, a 27-year public education educator who currently serves as Assistant Principal at Jefferson County High School in Tennessee. His dissertation focused on relationship building and academic success.
Skylar Primm, an educator at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello, Wisconsin*, a fascinating small public charter school centered on interdisciplinary experiential learning, with a focus on the environment.
*This was mentioned incorrectly during the podcast, sorry!
Elizabeth Martin, an English teacher who recently ventured to a county school after years spent at a large urban district. She has started to document this shift on Medium.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to season three, episode two of Things Fall Apart, our podcast on Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt. I'm a high school social studies teacher who strongly advocates for putting humans at the center rather than ranking, filing and demeaning them. In this podcast, we're talking about purpose building. What does it mean to pursue one's purpose? Are schools doing enough, if anything, to help children recognize their purpose? What can we do in the classroom to change this path? Is it even possible at the classroom level? Or does it take an entire school to change these things? And finally, what about us teachers? Are schools doing enough to recognize our purpose? I hope you love listening to the following amazing thoughts and ideas from educators around the world. But first, our podcast is kept alive by generous patrons on Patreon, two of whom are Paul Wan and Mary Walz. You can find more information about what the Human Restoration Project is and how we're helping promote progressive ed through entirely free resources, thoughts and more on our website at humanrestorationproject.org and on Twitter at @humerespro. It's fundamental to our existence that we feel we belong, that there is an overall meaning to life, a place for us, a purpose to drive us forward. For some it's faith based, maybe it's our occupation, or maybe it's just general content. Regardless of what that path is, schools could generally be described as not going down it. Frankly, much of school is spent cramming information for standardized testing, which is not the most exhilarating drive toward greater meaning. In general, any time spent reflecting on who one is, or who they could be, or even what they used to be is a nice aside to class. It's not a fundamental part of the curriculum. The idea of purpose finding is relatively new in both education and research. Prior to the modern era, most people found purpose on a generalized life track. They started at home with their family, they took up the family trade, they live within a small community, etc, etc. Now, in some circumstances, these were quite repressive conditions. But there weren't nearly as many options that are available as today. And ironically, the myriad options available actually cause anxiety, panic and a general lack of decision making for our youth and most adults. In 1959, Viktor Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning, which introduced the idea of positive psychology and its relationship to purpose. Then really, in the last 20 years, researchers have set out on explaining this phenomena, kicking off heavily with Dr. William Damon's The Path to Purpose. He surveyed 12,000 children and found the majority of them didn't have an expressed purpose in being with 25% responding that they had no purpose at all. What's arguably more concerning is that the majority of adults don't even have a purpose. They second guess themselves, they wonder if their job is meaningful if they give back to society. So we're living in a world where most children have no idea what they want to do. And most adults don't even know what they're doing. Part of the blame I argue is that schools do very little to allow children room to explore the world for themselves. We give them a ton of stuff to learn. And some of those things are relatively important. But almost nothing is given to contemplating who one is. Take the following data and take it with a grain of salt because there's certainly selectivity bias. But we're living in a world where according to the British Psychological Association, the majority of people who choose to have a child feel less happy as a result. The National Opinion Research Center finds that people are becoming less and less happy in marriage. And notably, the majority of marriages are considered discontent relationships. The organization Mental Health America and the FAST Foundation found that 71% of people are dissatisfied with their current jobs. And according to William Damon, the director of research at the Stanford Center on Adolescence, the best time to question all of these values is when you're 18 to 23 years old, right when most students are sent on the next step on a college or career pathway. So when we're looking at these things, we're basically preparing students for the fundamental time where they're going to make grandiose choices in life. And they really have never had any time to actually think about these things. And there's no one better to ask than someone who's laid the fundamental framework on studying this kind of thing. And that's Kendall Cotton Bronk. Dr. Kotton Bronk is one of the first researchers in this field, and she heads the Adolescent Moral Development Lab at Claremont Graduate University in California. Her work has established a link between purpose and greater life outcomes across the board, and she tries to find better ways to foster purpose in education. Here's how Dr. Cotton Bronk got started.
Kendall Cotton Bronk: So I started conducting research on purpose almost 20 years ago, which makes me feel old. But I really enjoyed the work because it's, I think, a really inspiring thing to spend your time focused on. And one of the first things that we explored when we got interested in the idea of purpose was really the definition. So what do we mean when we talk about purpose? When we talk about purpose, you know, with friends and family, we have sort of a general conception of what it means. But when we're going to conduct scientific research on the topic, it's really important to have a super clear cut definition. And not only that, but we had to define it in a way that we could measure it. So when I think about purpose, and I think when academics more generally think about purpose, we're thinking about a conception of purpose that comprises these sort of three main ideas. The first is that a purpose in life is, it's got like a goal orientation that's sort of inherent in it. There's something that you want to achieve, something that you want to work toward. The second is that, of course, it's very personally meaningful. It means, you know, it's very significant to who you are, often it's tied up in your identity. And the third is that it's sort of this long term, overarching aim that is really personally meaningful, but it also is of consequence to the world beyond the cells.
CM: And she actively leads a team of researchers on this exact topic.
KCB: We have a lab here at the Claremont Graduate University called the Adolescent Moral Development Lab. And we're interested in sort of that intersection of positive youth development. So just looking at how we can help young people really thrive, and also at moral development. So how can we help young people, you know, make decisions that are good for themselves, but also good for the people around them and the world around them. Most commonly, we've sort of tackled that topic through the lens of youth purpose. And we've looked at a variety of different aspects of purpose. But say most recently, we've sort of sought to address two related questions. So one of the questions we've really explored is, what does purpose look like among diverse groups of young people? So like I said, research on the topic kind of got underway about 20 years ago. And we looked at that sort of body of research and felt like, you know, there's a lot of really interesting findings emerging, but a lot of this research has been conducted with young people from more middle class backgrounds, often Caucasian youth. And so we got sort of interested in expanding. We've done studies with low income youth in Los Angeles with young people growing up amidst the global economic crisis in Greece, young people in Liberia, homeless, these are street children growing up in Liberia. We've done a lot of research with adolescent young adult cancer survivors looking at the role of purpose in that population. And then I'd say the second area that has been really interesting for us that we've really enjoyed exploring is what kinds of things can we do to intentionally foster purpose or really help young people discover a purpose for their lives. And we got interested in this because when we looked at the research over these past 20 years, in addition to noting some of the limitations with regards to the sample, one of the other things we noted is that there's a really clear finding that leading a life of purpose is a good thing. It's associated with all kinds of physical health. There's actually some, I think, really fascinating research, looking at changes in the biology among individuals who discover a purpose for their life, because these young people experience regression and cancer and, you know, better outcomes with regards to chronic pain. I mean, really crazy findings. They, you know, individuals with purpose, sleep better than individuals without purpose. They even live longer. And not only is it associated with physical health, but also psychological health. And so some of the early research we did, looked at that and we found again and again that young people with purpose reported being happier and much more satisfied with their lives, more hopeful. And then because we're interested in looking at youth, we even looked at sort of academic outcomes. And we found that the presence of purpose among young people is associated with all kinds of indicators of academic success, things like resilience, you know, the ability to kind of bounce back with grit, right, the ability to, you know, stick with something, something that we call internal locus of control, which is just this feeling that sort of your academic fate is within your hands, you have control over it, it's not being controlled by some sort of external force. We even find that young people with purpose report that their schoolwork is more meaningful. And I think that makes sense when you think about it, because if you know what it is that you really want to accomplish in your life, and you can start to see how what you're doing in school might help move you closer to that, you're going to be more motivated, right, you're going to care more about your schoolwork. So anyway, I guess the finding there is just that living a life of purpose is a good thing, physical health, it helps you be associated with better physical health, psychological health and academic success. But the other finding that emerged is that it's really pretty rare, only about one in 10 middle school students can sort of articulate a purpose for their life, about one in five high school students, and about one in three college age youth, even among adults, only about 40% of adults can really articulate a clear purpose for their life. So kind of across the lifespan, it's really more the exception than the rule. And so taking those two findings together, one that, you know, living a life of purpose is a good thing. And two, that doing so is relatively rare. That's how we got interested in sort of designing these.
CM: You know, as I listen, I can't help but think of our focus on quote unquote, passion building in schools, such as the push for genius hour or similar concepts where students have time to do things that might become their passion. However, at the same time, I also remember reading an Atlantic article sometime back surrounding why finding your passion is really bad advice, as we don't necessarily pigeonhole ourselves by selecting a passion. So my question is, what are your thoughts on that? And our passion and purpose the exact same thing?
KCB: Well, I do think of them as two separate ideas. It's funny because the Atlantic is also publishing, this is total sidebar, but I know finding a purpose is a great thing. I was like, wait a minute, which side do you fall down on? But anyway, I think of passion and purpose as two different things. Passion, they're certainly related. I mean, passion is just something that, you know, the actual meaning of the word passion is it's something you're willing to suffer for. And so it's something that's very personally meaningful, right? So you know, it is something you care deeply about, and you enjoy doing. And I think that's a part of purpose. But purpose is bigger than that, because it's not just doing what you enjoy, there's lots of things that we enjoy doing. It's kind of finding the way to apply your skills and your strength or your talent to make a difference in the broader world and not to make a difference in a meaningful way. And so often that does it should, to some degree, intersect with your passion. But it's more than that, right? There are a lot of things that you might be passionate about, but a very only have a couple of those that might turn out to be sources of real purpose. And only those that enable you to use your skills to make a difference in the broader world would we really categorize as purposes. Yeah, and I think one of the things about that, if I remember that article correctly, you know, I can worry, I worry about a little bit about with purpose is sometimes we think of it as like a thing that's out there, and it's just going to like bop you over the head one day, and you're going to suddenly know there's my purpose. Based on our research, that doesn't seem to be the way that it really works. Most people discover purpose by being involved, getting out there and getting involved in different things, whether they're academic pursuits, professional pursuits, extracurricular pursuits, community service pursuits. And in the course of being involved, people find out like, hey, you know, I got involved in this for whatever reason, but it turns out, I actually am really good at this. And not only that, I'm doing something that actually matters to me. So it's not like sitting back and just waiting for this thing to happen to you, but more about sort of getting out there and getting involved in the world and, and being reflective on what it is that you enjoy and what it is that you're good at and what it is that you really care about and sort of how your involvement in whatever activity you're doing, might enable you to make a meaningful difference in the world around you. There's a lot of research looking at people who do jobs that might seem to be very non purposeful people working as orderly that a hospital, they actually did this study and this is not research that I did, but research that came out of Michigan, I believe it was Michigan. And anyway, they found that you know, a lot of orderly that in some way that's not a particularly purposeful, you wouldn't look at it and think this is a really purposeful position. And for many people, it wasn't they looked at it as you know, I clean up after patients, it's pretty rough. But some subset of the people looked at their jobs, and they said, you know, I'm a part of the healthcare system, I'm a part of taking care of patients. And I really see that mission as central to the work that I do. And as a result, I find a lot of purpose and a lot of meaning in the in the job that I'm doing and being a part of this caregiving profession. So I guess it's not just a thing that is floating out there, but sort of an also an orientation, you know, it's a way that you can approach life.
CM: As you lay out all these studies, and show how purpose matters, which I mean, of course it matters, I don't really understand how a human could lay out a rational argument on why we wouldn't want students to try to at least find their purpose in life or set up on that path. I can't help but think why isn't school then just devoted to finding a purpose. If it makes you live longer, you're happy and content, you're doing something that matters, you're helping others, like why would you only spend an hour a week on that or even an hour a day? Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to focus the majority of our time on these kinds of things, and then spend a fraction of that said time on what we currently do in traditional ed?
KCB: First, I just want to say I kind of agree with you. I mean, I feel like the really the mission of education is to prepare young people with the skills and the knowledge that they need to go out and do the work that is purposeful to them. And a part of that, of course, is figuring out what that what that is going to be. So whether they're going to find purpose in, you know, working in a particular field or sometimes even outside of work, it seems like the mission of education to sort of arm young people with the experiences, the skills and the knowledge that they need to go out and live lives of purpose where they are doing things that are meaningful to them and making a positive having a positive effect on the world more generally. So I agree. But when I think about schools and steps that educators can take to help young people discover their purpose in life, I research suggests there are definitely some things that educators can do. One of the first things is really easy. And that is to just model purpose. Most of the teachers that I know went into the field, not to get rich, but instead to really make a difference in their students lives. You know, we hear again and again from teachers that, you know, they really wanted to help shape the minds of the future and things like that. But all too often, they don't tell this to their students, they don't share this with their students. And it's easy for teachers to sort of lose sight of why it is they went into this field in the first place. So, you know, it may not be the case that every teacher finds purpose in teaching, and if not, that's okay. But I think that if you do, it would be a wonderful opportunity to sort of model that for your students and tell students at the beginning of the school year, like, you know, I'm really excited to be here. This is really meaningful. This is, you know, touching your lives is a way to sort of leave my mark. You know, this is, I enter this for a very intentional reason and teaching gives my life purpose. Another thing that I research suggests can be really important, really effective and relatively easy, is to engage young people, especially young people in secondary educational settings, exploration of the long term. You know, I think most of our conversations with young people focus on the very short term, you know, what are you doing this weekend? Do you remember your book? Are you signing up for the class next semester? What sport are you going to play? We really just sort of focus on the short term. And in our experience, we've done, gosh, thousands of interviews with young people. And we step back and we ask them, what is it that you really care about? What do you want to accomplish in your life? Imagine, you know, 20 years down the road, what is going to be important to you? What do you what do you want your life to look like? And we were kind of blown away the first few times we did these interviews. Now we've almost gotten used to it. Young people love it. They'll say, you know, nobody asked me these questions. We had young people call us up after and say, Can you send me that transcript? I said some good stuff. And I don't want to lose track of that. So I think just again, we actually found that just administering this interview around purpose actually significantly raised rates of purpose among young people, ask them what they want out of their lives, ask them what they want to accomplish in the long term, ask them what they what the far horizon might look like. Sort of the third thing that I would recommend, based on the research that we've done is a little bit counterintuitive. But it's help young people focus on gratitude. And sometimes if if you ask a young person, so tell me what's your purpose in your life? It's kind of an overwhelming question. And it can be a little bit almost off putting, because young people tend to think that like, you know, your purpose has to be some big, huge thing. So it's sort of an indirect way of approaching this we have found in our research bears this out, is to encourage young people to think about the things that they're grateful for. So think about the blessings in your life, think about the people who have blessed you. And what we tend to find is that when young people are focused on the blessings in in their lives, they're sort of naturally inclined to start to think about how they might want to give back. And often with a little scaffolding that can spur discussions, you know, really constructive discussions of purpose.
CM: A lot of times in a school setting, I think we tend to focus on the next step of schooling. And really our tie to purpose building is just job readiness. We ask a lot about what do you want to be when you grow up expecting an occupation as the answer to that. And a lot of kids choose prestigious or well known careers, and sort of figure that academic success will lead them down that path. Are you concerned that we're focused a little too much on occupations as a gateway to purpose?
KCB: Careers are one common path to purpose, but they're not the only one for a lot of some number of young people anyway, actually find purpose in having a family someday. And they'll say, you know, it's really important to me to be a parent. And, you know, we hear this generally among older young people, especially in college age or beyond, but they may want to set up their lives in such a way as to, you know, enable them to spend enough time with future children and things like that. Other young people find purpose in living lives that are really consistent with their religious beliefs. And so that may not intersect much with professional choices, but more with sort of the way they live their lives all across domains. Other people find purpose in the community service work that they do. So, you know, maybe they want a job that will enable them to, you know, feed themselves and help themselves, but really their real passion lies in being involved in some sort of community service activity. Other young people find purpose in, you know, promoting social or political change. And so anyway, I definitely think careers are one avenue for purpose, but not the only one. And so we try to, we try to leave it open and not narrow young people to only a career purpose.
CM: I see. And the question I guess then is, how do we actually incorporate these practices into the classroom? If purpose is such a big deal, is there a way we could integrate it without radically changing the system? Even though I think that would be the ideal solution. At our school, we just introduced Project Wayfinder. And a quick side note to our audience, I don't mean this as a plug, we did have Patrick Cook-Deegan, the founder on our podcast, and we're not getting paid by them, but it really has been eye opening in our advisory curriculum. And also, you've done work with Project Wayfinder. Anyways, what steps can teachers take to integrate purpose finding?
KCB: I tend to have a lot of faith in teachers. Teachers, I think, are really creative. And I think that helping teachers to even sort of keep the idea of purpose on their radar, that there are ways of incorporating purpose into any class, right? Whether, I mean, I know at our local school, high school in town, I was meeting with a biology teacher, and she was talking about this activity that she had come up with. It was totally focused on purpose, and I was like, that's fantastic, you know. So, they're probably the ones who are in the best position to come up with creative ways of integrating it. We've had English teachers that in some ways English is a particularly easy place. They can encourage reading on books that include portraits of purpose, especially youth purpose, and have young people write about maybe their own purpose. Looking at history, right, lots of historical figures that had purposes, some really pro-social and positive purposes, others possibly anti-social, destructive purposes. But still, either example, I think, at least can help young people start to think about purpose and maybe some of the, you know, what would distinguish a positive, productive purpose from an anti-social, destructive purpose. Mathematics, I mean, there are examples of people who have come up with really revolutionary ideas and that have really, you know, changed technology and the way that we live our lives today. So, I think that purpose is relevant to any field, and it's really, teachers are, I guess, what I always feel like there's no one-size-fits-all. It's not like I could come up with a curriculum. I wouldn't want to try to come up with one curriculum and tell everybody, you know, do this, because I think different things work in different communities with different populations of students. So, I think the best thing you could hope for is to encourage teachers to really think about it and be intentional about encouraging these kinds of long-term discussions, encouraging, you know, providing lots of examples and models of purpose, and then sort of letting them stand back and think about what is the most productive way of doing this in your own classroom, given your core subjects and your student population.
CM: If you'd like to learn more about purpose finding in schools, Dr. Cotton Brock recommends that you check out her team's academic toolkit, as well as the Greater Good magazine, which reports on findings of this data, both of which you can find in the show notes for free.
John Cagle: Well, I think most educators have anecdotal evidence, tons of it, that if a student's happy at school, they're going to achieve more. And I wanted to come up with some stronger correlations and some data to support that. So, my study was focused just on one high school, and it showed a positive correlation. But what really opened my eyes was the research that's already out there that shows the happier or the more positive students feel about themselves, about their lives, about their place at school, the better they do academically.
CM: This is John Cagle. John has been involved for 26 years in public education and serves as the assistant principal at Jefferson County High School in Tennessee. His dissertation was on this correlation, and it makes us wonder, just like with purpose finding, why isn't our goal to just make kids happy at school?
JC: Typically, when you talk about making students happy, most teachers and unfortunately administrators think of positive rewards. They have to be rewarded for effort or attendance and things like that. So, you run into this backlash of people who think, well, these are things that students should be doing anyway. But it's not really that. The basis for the students happiness, the primary driver that the research shows is the relationships they have at school, not only with their peers, but with their teachers. And with all the high stakes testing going across the country, it's something that we're losing. We're losing that connection or that time for connection or the emphasis for connection between students and teachers, even though all the research shows that that's the primary focus or that's the primary aspect that makes students happy. Do I feel valued? Do I feel like I'm treated fairly? Am I seen? Am I heard? Things like that. So, it's really the relationship between the teacher and student that we need to focus on.
CM: You know, it bothers me so much that when we talk about these things, it always has to be framed around standardized testing or school grades. I understand why they're like that. Sadly, it keeps the doors open, but it's depressing to know that we have to have these discussions. We're literally talking about why adults should connect with people they're spending a huge portion of their day with and they're working with. That connection really should be obvious.
JC: It is seen then as something you have to invest possibly money or a great amount of time in. I mean, think about normal jobs that people have in the workplace. Money is a non-motivator, really. I mean, no matter how much you're getting paid, if you don't feel valued, you don't feel respected, if you don't feel a part of the workplace, you're not going to be happy, no matter your salary. So, really, it's just this, you know, it's things like recognition. Just, you know, hey, I'm here, you know, greeting teacher, you know, greeting your students by name and positive comments home. I mean, we're really good at education at sending home bad news, you know, discipline referrals, making a call to a parent when the kid's misbehaving. We don't do a very good job of doing the same thing for kids who are doing positive things. When you mentioned to an administrator, especially about sending letters home, their first thought is, well, it's discipline letters. How often do we send letters home about, hey, your students, you know, one of our great glue kids just holds our school together, or I saw your student hold a door open for somebody today. I just wanted to call and thank you for that. So, it's little things like that that don't take a lot of time and don't take a lot of money that reinforce what the research shows the students want is to be a positive part of something.
CM: And we can dig deeper, right? I don't want to go too far down this track because we've talked about it heavily in the last episode, but part of building trust and building relationships, having students feel valued, it's actually just listening to them. Can we change elements of our class that cater to their desires?
JC: Yes, I think it's involving them in the process. Even something as simple as, you know, classroom rules. Now, obviously there are certain rules that are inviolate and, you know, we can't, you know, we can't have students saying, well, how about if I'm not tardy, if I come in within 30 minutes of the tardy bell, we can't do that. But just involving in the process, when you're talking about a classroom makeup policy, for example, and ask the students, what do you think a fair makeup policy is? And do that early in the process. You're not only establishing your classroom norms and you can guide those conversations, but now they feel like they have a part of it. They feel like, okay, you asked me my opinion, I'm giving it to you. And even if I'm the student that asked for 30 minutes after the tardy bell to be, you know, not tardy, at least you asked me. And I know whatever final solution we come up with, I was a part of. I mean, education is a partnership really between students and teachers, but too often we don't let the students have a part in that process. We tell them, we direct them, we, we command them without letting them have a part in the process. And we can still guide that process. We can still guide the conversation and we can still arrive at rules and regulations that are going to be a part of the school culture. And they're not going to upset the school policy, but just let them have a voice and recognizing that, hey, you're an important part of this process too.
CM: What we're describing here is basically like the first foray into implementing student choice and voice. And we know that for many teachers, they're terrified of taking the step because they fear that loss of control. I know practically speaking that I've never set rules with my kids and had them make like legitimately outrageous claims. In fact, they're often way more strict on themselves. That kind of goes across the fold to kids just tend to be harder on themselves and to substantiate that they're more likely to follow through on their own promises if they're the ones that are sending it.
JC: Well, and it helps the students, again, feel valued and they're not surprised. I mean, in my school, I have teachers who count kids tardy if they're not in their seat when the bell rings versus some other classes where if they're in their room. Well, the kids typically who are in those first classrooms, the teacher didn't tell them what a tardy was. They didn't have that conversation. And so in their mind, hey, I'm in the classroom. You see me here, but just because I'm not in my seat, you're going to get me tardy. You know, I have teachers who send me a referral for kids that don't have a pencil. Well, how does that help the relationship if you're sending a kid out of the classroom for discipline when you could just as easily give them a pencil or heck, you know, if you want to be capitalist, sell them a pencil. Well, I've got pencils here for a nickel. So if you give me a nickel, here's your pencil. You don't have to go to school. So there's a thousand different ways to do it. But none of them cause very much money. None of them take a lot of training. I think you just have a simple philosophy in the school and especially in the classroom. Keep the students in mind, not cater to the students, but keep them in mind. You know, let you know that your success as a teacher depends on their success and that their success depends on how satisfied they are with the process. I mean, when you talk about other businesses, that's common sense. We don't do that in education. And you know, it's taking Maslow, it's taking Marzano, it's taking Glasser and molding all these things together and just having a common sense approach to the educational process with your students.
CM: I think common sense approach is probably the best way to put it. I see all the time people promoting positive relationships on Twitter. And I guess I forget what some teachers are still doing in their rooms. The pencil hoarding situation brings back nightmares of my days in school. I mean, I absolutely despised the majority of my teachers because they were frankly like egomaniacs. I had a few cool ones that empathize with us, but even the teachers who are passionate about their subject, the second that they became authoritarian, like they had a bad day and just shut down the class, I essentially lost all respect for them. Like, I wasn't going to learn in their classes anymore. And I just want to shift gears here for a second. You're an assistant principal. So when I look at progressive practice, the commonality among teachers embracing it is curiosity. They're curious people. It's what we want from our students to be curious, but a lot of teachers have lost that desire to do so, especially in the way that they teach. They're no longer seeking anything else that's radical or re-envisioning anything. So what actions can you take as administration to see change?
JC: Well, yeah, I think there is a way to teach than that. And the way you teach it is to allow that curiosity. I mean, if you're constantly telling me what I want to do, then I'm not really engaging my higher order thinking to figure out how to do it. Because you're going to be an autocratic manager. You're going to tell me how to do it. If you use a democratic management style or teaching style and you're asking for opinions, now I have to be curious. Now I have to think. Again, this is something we don't do well in education. I mean, from kindergarten on, color inside the line. I remember I had an argument with my first grade teacher on telling time wrong. I would say it was like right now, it's about 15 after 12. Well, I would say it's 45 to one. But she said, no, you're wrong. I said, even if the first grader, I'm doing the math. No, it's still 45 to one. Maybe that's the way I see the clock. And then when they go into the workplace, the first thing companies ask them to do is to be creative and be curious. So you have to allow things like that. Maybe it's a writing assignment or a public speaking assignment. Why not let the students pick the topic they're going to speak of? Is the goal that you want them to write or do you want them to write on the symbolism of Billy Budd? Well, I really want to see how they process it. So let's just have them write. Let's just have them talk and let them pick it. Same way with teachers. Instead of coming up with your professional development focus for the year, ask the teachers, what do you need the most help with? And then let teachers lead those professional development. Pick those teacher leaders who you see are doing a good job in that and let them lead the PD instead of administrator who might have been in the classroom back when smart boards consisted of a piece of chalk. So if you let people be a part of the process, they're going to be curious about how to come up with those solutions. And vis-a-vis you're teaching the curiosity. You're just allowing them to be curious.
CM: John then went on to describe how he got into education in his late 20s after pursuing a career in the private business sector. That, coupled with his ideas on making curious learners, reminded me of the book Lynchpin by Seth Godin in which he talks about being an innovative worker, the person who quote unquote makes the business. And it's interesting. It's not necessarily the manager or the CEO or someone in charge. It could just be like, for example, the awesome barista who you're like, hey, you're the guy that makes me smile when I walk in the door, whatever it is. It's people that are really passionate about what they're doing. They're really good people to be around. They're creative. They're interesting. And Seth Godin notes that they're also people that tend to bend the rules, which is really just a harsh way of saying innovation. They're innovating their practice. They're doing what they think is best, even if it's not the way things have always been done. So John goes on with those thoughts.
JC: You're exactly right. And the blowback I get from colleagues and other people I've talked to is, well, you're preparing them for a standardized test, which two words I hate standardized tests, but that's true. That's the end goal for most educators. What are my students' performance on this? But again, how do you get them there? I mean, to this day, when I alphabetize something, I sing the alphabet song in my head. I can never remember that little stretch, you know, JKL. So I sing this on ABC. So if you have students who are being tested on materials, say in geometry on slope, and you've helped them come up with a fun, mnemonic way, or they've come up with a fun, mnemonic way of remembering rise and run, maybe instead of run DMC, you have the equation, you know. They can go through that in their heads while they're doing the standardized test. That's what we go back to. We go back to things we've developed, you know, little things that we've come up with. And unfortunately, we haven't come up with a better way to teach the alphabet than the alphabet song. So we've still seen that in our head. Those of us who were exposed to Schoolhouse Rock as kids, we do that, you know. And now as a person, place your thing. As soon as I say that to a certain age group, they start playing the Schoolhouse Rock video in their head, you know. So if you're having students learn those concepts in a way that's fun for them, they're going to remember it. We remember jokes. We remember funny jokes much better than we remember the third segment of a TED Talk we saw online, unless it was a very good TED Talk. So you're exactly right. I mean, those people that keep us coming back to their businesses, they have found a way to be unique in their business. They have found a way to excel at certain things. Maybe that barista is not the, you know, best coffee grinder. Maybe she puts a little bit too much cream in my latte. But if she's, you know, hey, it's, you know, it's National Chili Day when you come in and she's memorized all these stupid holidays. I want to come in and see what the next holiday is, you know. That keeps me coming back to that place. So it's exactly like you said. And another guy, Sean Acord, who wrote a book called The Happiness Advantage, he says the same thing in the books. The ones who are most successful in their job have found happiness in it. They have found through their own way how to be happy. And the bottom line is you're not going to be any good at anything if you're not happy doing it. I mean, I'm not happy dieting. That's why I struggled my way. You know, we, well, yeah, exactly. So we're going to remember what we're happy doing. And so why not help our students be happy doing what they're doing by recognizing their contributions, being there for them, giving them choices, the things that all successful teachers have done for years, but just making that now part of the process and allowing those teachers to step up and really be your change agents within the schools.
CM: Hey, I hope you're enjoying listening to Things Fall Apart here at the Human Restoration Project. There's a few things I want you to be aware of. First off, if you subscribe to us on Patreon, not only do you know that you're supporting all of our free resources that you can find online, not only are you supporting this podcast and all the cool things that we do, you also get everything within an electronic magazine that we send out every couple months. It's pretty professional looking, in my opinion. You can share it out with whoever you want. It's printable, the whole nine yards. So make sure you check that out on our Patreon, which you can find via our website at humanrestorationproject.org. And if you're enjoying listening to this podcast, or you just want to leave some feedback, feel free to leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you're listening to this podcast from. I appreciate anything you send over to me, even if it's not necessarily positive. I always want to get better. So you can also shoot me an email at chris, C-H-R-I-S, at humanrestorationproject.org. Thanks. Next up is Skylar Primm. Skylar works at Highmark Environmental Center in Madison, Wisconsin, which is centered on interdisciplinary project-based learning with a specific focus on the environment. Also, Skylar is one of our earliest supporters for the Human Restoration Project, so it's pretty cool to have him on. He works with a group of roughly 30 students, all the way between 7th and 12th grades, a very small public charter school. And I was interested in learning more about all the awesome stuff that he's doing. So Skylar, sort of explain your school a little here, because the setup's really interesting.
Skylar Primm: Within our county is Marquette County, hence the name. And down the road from us is where John Muir grew up on his boyhood home. So they moved from Scotland, traveled from the New York area over to Wisconsin, and settled in Marquette County. And we're also not too far away from Alba Leopold's shack. So we've got these really strong connections, not to mention that the community itself is really largely reliant on its lakes and its hunting and that sort of thing. So it's really reliant on tourist dollars, basically. There's a reason to do it as an environmental-focused school, even though the community is rural and politically pretty conservative. And I think that's pretty cool, because it shows that we're not a hippie school that only allows liberal views. So the school was founded in 2010. Our founding teacher was Sarah Hackett. I came in in year two. I had spent two years teaching at Togloss Leadership Academy in Janesville, which is an early project-based charter school in Wisconsin. I came into Highmark, and I have spent the last eight years. This is my eighth year there. We have a cap of 32 students, two full-time teachers, and one part-time program assistant. We're really lucky in a lot of ways to have that luxury. We have a lot of budget autonomy, so an unusual amount of budget autonomy for a public charter school that's in Wisconsin. We call them instrumentality charter schools when they're overseen by the school district. And so we're able to prioritize having a small school. The main reason for keeping it that small is that every Thursday we spend outside, and usually on a bus. We take a bus somewhere off into the school forest that we have not too far away. But we go to all kinds of places, like, for instance, the park that's at John Muir's Boyhood Home. And 32 is about as big as we can get and still fit on one bus with gear that we're going to use out there. And so in the initial plans for the school, it was going to expand beyond that, but we haven't. We kind of made a pivot several years in to say, like, no, this is actually a pretty ideal size.
CM: Skylar goes on to explain that his school uses a public lottery system, just like the magnet school that I work for uses, where there's no academic or background requirements to attend. They're becoming more popular in a sparsely populated region, and now they have a wait list. And although having that small of a school isn't always ideal because you can't accept every single person that wants to come, Skylar explains.
SP: One really strong benefit that we have, again, for that, because of that small school thing and because we're covering all those grade levels, is that I have students for up to six years. Last spring, we had our first graduate who had been seventh grade through 12th grade with us. And she's now at a kind of progressive private college in the Milwaukee area that doesn't have grades and allows retakes of things. And I saw her at Christmas and she was loving it, but said that sometimes she wanted to just be able to pass a class with a D, but they wouldn't let her, obviously, because they made a redo thing. I was like, yeah, but that means you're really learning. And to be honest, in seventh grade, she had no idea if she wanted to even go to college. Actually, up through 11th grade, she didn't think that she wanted to, which is fine. I certainly don't want a kid to waste their time, money, and future on going to college if that's not what they want to do. We're a school that most of the curriculum is student-driven. And so we certainly encourage, we try to draw out what their interests are and what their skills are starting from the start. Sometimes those are things that are going to lead to a purpose. Sometimes like art. We have one of our first four-year graduate who is now also our first college graduate, draws graphic novels now, because that was her passion. She ended up going to the Savannah College of Art and Design, which was an unusual school and worked really well for her. For a student like her, who's really into art and that's her jam, to say what the kids say, we would say, while you're doing a project that's on science, but you can use your illustrating to make it yours. It's not just about learning the parts of a cell, it's making it yours. And it's not just about everybody doing some food edible cell or whatever. I guess I would say that we have open minds to whatever the student proposes something as, and they're interested in. Thinking back, I had another student who thought they were really interested in being a vet and they did some job shadowing of that, because they did a project on it and they learned that they had no interest whatsoever in doing that. And that was really important. And then we have students that I think don't think that they have a purpose and don't know because they just haven't even thought about it. And those kids take a really long time because they haven't, especially if they've been really good at traditional school. So we end up attracting students of all kinds. At the beginning, I think this is kind of typical, at least in Wisconsin, for public charter schools is that they are pigeonholed as kind of the alternative school. And so I used to describe it as kids are choosing it for what it's not instead of what it is. So it's not the traditional school, so we're choosing it. So we want to go there because we don't like the traditional school as opposed to we want to go there because it's project-based because we get to go outside.
CM: It seems like purpose-finding naturally lends itself to a small school environment, especially when the school is less traditional. I'm a huge advocate of switching to small schools, either by building new ones or offering a lot of different choices for free, as in there's a public education option with different styles and different themes for different students to do different things. Or maybe you just take very large schools that already exist and subdivide them in order to meet the same goals. And, you know, kind of a separate question. As a teacher at a similar type of school, we're not certainly as different as what Highmark is doing, but I still find a lot of my work to be in the deprogramming element of traditional education. As in, a lot of the work that I'm doing is convincing students that I'm telling them the truth about the aims of education, and that's not all about getting A's. So what steps do you take to go about that deprogramming process? Like, what does that look like in that year?
SP: That's another benefit of having the multi-year, multi-generational thing is that we really rely on our older students to, you know, carry on the legacy of the school and to kind of induct the new students into it, but also to hold us accountable when we screw up. You know, if we forget to do something or if we forget that, like we said, oh, next year we'll try X, Y, or Z, almost always a student will remember if we forget. But we actually start every year with two weeks of boot camp, which we actually refer to it as like Highmark boot camp, which is an idea I got from my previous school, Tagos, where we all do kind of a shared project. And a lot of times that's been kind of around identity and actually we change it up every year, just depending on what we think we need. And last year in the middle or towards the end of the school year, we were really struggling with some students not really connecting and they weren't, there was some quickishness, which you wouldn't really think would happen in a small enough school, but it still sometimes does. And we decided that what we were going to do when we started the new school year was have a project where they were doing, they were learning about a peer, so it's a peer research project. And we paired them up this year for those two weeks and they learned, it was a really basic project where they just had a questionnaire, they interviewed their peer, they put together a presentation and then introduced their peer to the community or reintroduced if it was an older student. And that gave them some ideas about not only who these people were and it kind of helped them understand like, oh, I do have stuff in common beyond just going to the school with this person. We also do a lot of, even beyond that, just tons of team building activities in those first two weeks. We do almost no academics. We just do tons and tons of community building, tons and tons of connections just to bring us all together and understand that, yeah, exactly, we're not lying. And I think that the older students again have been through this with us so much that they vouch for us in a way that I think is really powerful for the younger students as well. But I think that the older the student, the harder it can be, although it really depends on the kid. They're all individuals. I have a new student this year, he's an 11th grader and she used to come visit us last year as a 10th grader just like at lunch because she was friends with one of our students. And so I knew her already and she bought in like day one, no question. Versus a couple of years ago, one of our seventh graders had come from, we also get a lot of homeschooled kids coming in. And I had a seventh grader whose mom wanted her to come post-homeschooling and that was how she would always describe her reason for coming was like, oh, my mom made me and she was just very stoic. And by the end of the school year, she was like, so should I ever made of this place? And like I have a quote from her that she still uses, which is that just listen to Mr. Prim, he's always right, which is not at all true. But she believed it with life advice that I gave her one time. I was like, well, let's go with it.
CM: And with a small group of kids, I'm sure you can do so much regarding a quote unquote path to purpose. What does that look like?
SP: I think that another way that I help students with this understanding that the path to purpose thing is that I'm open with my story. I tell them that my path was really non-linear to the classroom. I started teaching my first teaching job at 30 after a master's degree in geology and thinking I was going to get a PhD, deciding that I didn't want to do that, working in an engineering lab for a couple of years, trying to figure things out and moving from New Orleans to Wisconsin for grad school and then staying here. And I was that straight A kid, not necessarily in high school. I mean, I went to a magnet, but in college I was a straight A kid because that was just my identity was like, I am doing this. And I can talk about that now. Like that was a ridiculous way to, like I would drop classes if I wasn't going to, if I knew I wasn't going to do well in it. But yeah, so I mean, I think that I closed myself off to experiences by not being willing to accept that grades were not that important. And I didn't even figure that out until much later in life. But now, like I took a class in the fall, it was just a certification class for just an online environmental science thing. And it was needed. It wasn't like we weren't getting our grades, but it was scored because that's just a way that she makes sure that people complete the course essentially within a time, a reasonable timeframe. And it felt gross. It like, as soon as it, that happened, I felt so much stress over so much more. Like I was, I was, I was taking the class cause I was interested in it and cause it was something that was cool. And I still did get a lot out of it, but it was, there was in the back of my head, there was this like the little like grade demon telling me like, you got to do well on this. You got to get in. And I think it was like, yeah, they get 80% or something. And it wasn't even that she was not a hard grader. It's not like it was, you know, there was no reason to believe that I was going to not pass and get certified for this thing. Cause it really was just a placeholder, but it, I still like that, it like triggered that part of my brain from forever ago that worried about that kind of thing. And it just felt gross.
CM: Yeah. This all makes me think about how bad of a student I instantly become in professional development settings. It irks me so much that PD is almost always a lecture. I sort of revert back to how I was when I was in high school. I just zone out and hate it. And I find it so ironic that education majors teach quote unquote forward thinking practice in the most boring ways because adults apparently can handle it or something. I know I can't. Anyways, this school sounds really cool and I'm glad the students have the opportunity to try something different. I'm curious then if your experience teaching there has restored your own purpose in education.
SP: Yeah. So I as part of that whole like non-traditional path, I looked into student teaching at an alternative high school. I was not seeking necessarily an alternative placement, but that was just where the side of town that I lived on at the time in Madison. And they were actually the teacher, my cooperating instructor, Heather Messer. I was her first student teacher, so the timing was just perfect. And when I walked in there, all my previous practicum experience had been in regular giant high schools in Madison and very traditional classrooms. And I walked in, so that was what was normal because that's also what I went to. And I walked in and started learning about their school and how they had these social pillars and they started each class with a circle where they just transitioned into the classroom and they had life skills classes, which were like advisories except by a different name. It showed me that there was a different way to do things and that was just awesome. And I again was able to go to a school where I got to be kind of mentored by some people that had been doing that sort of teaching for a while and were already skeptical of grades and traditional teaching and all that stuff, and already had established that you could do that stuff. So I didn't have to, for myself, decide like, oh, I don't have to give grades because they already weren't giving grades. And they already were giving students voice and choice and building really strong relationships with students and that sort of thing. And so my path was paved by a lot of mentors, which was awesome. And then, like I said, I joined Highmark in the second year. And then in that second year, the first starting teacher decided to leave at the end of the year. So immediately I was casted to the, oh, now I'm a veteran here. And my co-teacher, Amanda, who came in, I actually knew her from, she had student taught at Tagos, which worked out well because we had a similar ethos. But I think that the more I teach in this type of school, originally, when I, for my first couple of years of teaching, I was like, well, I could teach in a traditional classroom, but I would be, I wouldn't be super happy, but I could do it. The last couple of years have convinced me that like, there's no way, there's just no way I could teach in a regular classroom because I would, it would just be too against my beliefs that it was bad for the students. It would be bad for me. It would be just bad all around. And so my purpose, I guess, is to, oh, and I also, I guess, early on when I first started like exploring teaching and decided to become a teacher, in my head, it was like, well, you know, you teach for a while, then you go on to become an administrator. And that's the, that's the normal path. And like, there is no way I would want to be an administrator, at least in the, by the current traditional school definition of what an administrator does. Because I would, I just, I love working with students and, and working on that level. I think that again, teaching in this kind of environment has really helped me recognize that like, that's where my skillset is. And that's also where my interest is. So yeah, I think that, I think there's that profound impact on my path.
CM: And now Elizabeth Martin, a seventh year English educator who recently made a drastic shift in her career.
Elizabeth Martin: I did like six years in urban ed. The school that I was in was, had over 2000 students in it. Over half the student body is racially and ethnically diverse. Over half the student body on free or reduced lunch. So a lot of, a lot of diversity in the school, economic, racial, ethnic diversity. Now I'm in a rural school with less than 600 students, very, very, very little, if at all, ethnic and racial diversity. So it's been a real 180. It's been a complete change in, in school culture and everything. On a personal level, it was a great change because urban ed is really high stress and I was burning out. So just for me as a person, it's been an excellent transition. And as a teacher from a professional perspective, it's just helped me just to have a different view of issues in education right now after having such two very different teaching positions.
CM: So you make the shift from a large urban district to an incredibly small rural one. What was that transition like for you personally?
EM: That has to be a culture shock. Well, the culture is definitely very different. My personal background actually went to a very small rural school for high school. I grew up in rural East Tennessee and right now I live in rural Southwest Virginia. So it was different for me teaching in an urban school. That wasn't my personal background. I was able to fit in there because as in any urban setting, you're going to have, you know, more progressive politics maybe. And so that, that fit was just kind of who I am as a person. So I was able to really acclimate really well to urban life in that regard and urban students and their parents, you know, the demographics of the school, we would have the poorest of the poor kids in the city, but we also had the richest of the rich kids in the city. And so, you know, having students in the class whose parents were, had master's degrees and doctorates and just highly educated was different for me because that's not really how I grew up. But where I am now, culture is way different. A lot of people just, you know, kind of working class, lower middle-class families, not necessarily coming from families where parents went to college. Politically speaking, it's a very conservative area. Definitely lots of Make America Great Again sons. So, yeah, culturally it's been a huge change, but I've been able to sort of fit in in both places because they've spoken to me on a personal level. I mean, I have a background being somebody who grew up in rural America, so I do fine in my rural school now, but then also did fine in the urban school because of my own sort of, you know, personal politics and that sort of thing.
CM: Right, right. I know that a drastic shift for me as someone who grew up in Columbus and I mean the suburbs really, I student taught in urban districts and now I teach in a semi-rural, semi-urban magnet. The shift for me that was shocking was the political discourse. It really wasn't that apparent until the 2016 election where I had some students adamantly supporting our current president and then you had those that vehemently opposed him. I'm personally an advocate for letting anyone share their opinions and having a safe space to speak, but there was a worrying amount of discourse that had to be mentored, like, you know, racist and sexist viewpoints that you just can't tolerate within a classroom. And I feel in the last political debate that most people would agree that those sentiments became more public. I'm curious how that came out where you were.
EM: Yes and no. I don't struggle as much as I expected that I would. When I was in the city school, I sponsored the Young Feminist Club and I assisted with the Young Democrats and I helped another teacher. We started an LGBTQ support group and that was just totally fine. There was nothing out of the ordinary. You didn't feel that sort of transgressive doing that kind of stuff in the city school. Whereas in my school now, this just would never happen. There's none of that. So it's definitely, I mean, I wouldn't really say censor myself at all, but I can't necessarily be, I got to be more subtle about it. I can't be as open about my own stance and my own politics as I maybe was in the city school. But it's also been nice because I expected this to be a huge sort of, you know, con on a pro con list for teaching in rural ed that I was having to give up, you know, teaching students and being around parents who were more like-minded. But it's actually been interesting to see from the perspective of somebody who grew up in rural America and who didn't really ever have teachers who challenged that worldview in any sort of way. It was just always constantly reinforced. And so to be a teacher who gets to challenge the way they think about things and ask them questions that they've maybe never been asked before, I can definitely see how it's a gap in rural education that's just not there. You know, it's a misconception to think that, you know, when we talk about the politics of rural America, we're talking about the politics of adults. We don't really know, we're not polling teenagers, you know, and teenagers are still forming their worldview. And so when they have somebody who challenges just kind of the politics that they've known, the worldview that they've known, I'm finding that they're actually incredibly receptive to it, and that they want teachers who are making them think this way, rather than just kind of reinforcing what they've always been told.
CM: I really like that point of being a different perspective. I don't see my role as converting anyone, but I do know that some students see my class as interesting just because I'm a lot different than the stereotypical conservative football coach social studies instructor. We spend a lot of time talking about socioeconomics and identity-based histories in my class, not only because students lack that perspective, but more so because they're interested in it. Like, I surveyed the class and those are the things that they want to talk about. And despite the stereotype people might assume about a more conservatively aligned teenagers, they really want to learn more about what is seen as, I suppose, liberal leaning history. Many of them are intrinsically motivated and ask more about gay rights, for example. It's nice to know as someone who has a different perspective on these things that's going to at least present this information to kids, that not only are they learning it, but they're also really open to learning about it. They want to talk about these things. And for the most part, kids are very receptive to it. I know that a fellow teacher who just joined our staff introduced Gender Sexuality's Alliance to an area which I'm fairly confident, 99% sure, that there has never been a GSA anywhere close to that school. And it has, like, 40 people in it after two weeks because kids crave talking about safe, open places where they can talk about these really serious issues that often have gone unsaid. You know, to shift away here for a minute from the political landscape, let's talk about the benefits of your new position because you did mention that you had less stress there.
EM: Well, just being able to be somewhere that has the privilege of where students can just be students and teachers can just be teachers is huge. I mean, that's one thing that I noticed in urban ed. You would read all these articles about educational reform and this cool new thing to do in the classroom and engaging students. And so much of it just falls flat for the city school teacher because, you know, the problems of the city schools are just the problems of society. You know, we're dealing with poverty and institutional racism and just, you know, you're dealing with more problems than just the problems of public education. So it's a privilege to be in a school now where you can just be a teacher and students can really just be a student. So with that in mind, I've been able to just be a lot more reflective about my practice and research more, you know, first six years teaching. I never really got on Twitter and looked to see what other teachers were saying and what was happening because I just didn't have the energy for it. I didn't have the mental energy. I didn't even have the desire. So that has changed a lot.
CM: I'm familiar with how many teachers who just could never have large-scale progressive reforms because how do you align a vision with two to four thousand people and all those personnel? It's not feasible without a literal revolution. I know that's the reason why so many teachers burn out. People go into this profession because they want to make the world a better place, and when you yourself become a cog in the machine, it's just like the lack of purpose that we see among our kids. I actually think one of the best arguments toward progressive education, as in a way to convince people to try it out and believe in it, is the overwhelming stress of being a traditional teacher. If our purpose is transformed in being test preparers, for example, it shouldn't be shocking that teachers grow to hate their jobs. Plus, if teachers are told to do this without any voice and choice and when they're just corralled in the masses and when we ignore the underlying problems that go along with large districts, especially in lower socioeconomic areas, then why wouldn't we burn out? I mean, even at a small school, I feel so stressed when my kids can't afford clothes or they just lack opportunities that other kids have. Of course, I'm not saying that other socioeconomic levels don't have problems or that these are the majority of circumstances for those who are struggling, but it's something you have to deal with more often, especially in the city.
EM: And I was just feeling so burnt out to the point where I was questioning whether or not I was even in the right career, because it can get so bad where you're not necessarily sure. I mean, I had a sense that so much of my issues were tied to the fact that I was just in a high stress environment, but I still worried that when I moved to a new school, a completely different teaching environment, that I still wouldn't be happy. And then what am I supposed to do with myself? So it was definitely a great thing to know that I am in the right career because it was such a good change the first semester, the fall semester in my new school, just immediately solidified for me that I was in the right place, that I do enjoy spending my time with young people and helping them figure out who they are and what they think about things and what their interests are. And really the thing that, like you said, the one thing that hit that home for me was around Thanksgiving, I decided that I was going to, because one thing that was new for me is we went to, I teach it a four by four now, so you get new students at the end of the semester, kind of like college. Whereas in my old school, it was just every other day, so you kept the same kids all year. So after winter break, I wasn't going to see those same students anymore. So I decided I wanted to give them all a little Christmas card and write them a personalized note. So I took for all my, I think I ended up having, let's see how many total students, like 75, 80 students. And I wrote them all a note, a Christmas card that was personalized and said something about them and about how much I enjoyed having them in class. And I had absolutely never done that before, never had the desire to do that before, never had the thought to do that before. So the fact that it even occurred to me and then I sat down and took the time to do it really showed me that I'm in the right place. This was a good change and I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
CM: And in this more restored practice, if that's the right term, when you have more autonomy at a smaller school, what are you now able to do? Do you find yourself that you can just take more progressive ideas or calculated risks?
EM: Well, yes and no. I guess I've been able, a lot of things that I can do now are things that I've always been interested in and curious about. I just was sort of hamstrings in the city. So I have always tried to implement student choice, which of course is a core value in progressive education. So what students read, what they write, I try my best not to dictate that. I've always tried not to dictate that, but I can do that so much more so now in my new school. So that's not to say that I give them 100% choice with everything. It's not about making yourself disappear as a teacher, but I've certainly been able to bring student choice out much more so than I could in the city. Part of that, because one, I'm not having to plan along with another teacher and two, just not having to deal with so many of the outside issues that you have to deal with in the city. So yeah, implementing student choice a lot more, trying to engage student questions. Students want to talk about things. They want to talk about things that matter as a humanities teacher. And I do see, even though I'm an English teacher, I do see myself more as a humanities teacher. I was a double major in English and history in college. So my students always talk about how sometimes they feel like I'm their history teacher and not their English teacher because so much of what I do is related to what they're also doing in history. But just getting them to engage in questions, it's so hard because by the time they've gotten to high school, they've been so beaten into line. It's almost like they really want you to just give them a worksheet and have them turn it into class and give them their A and pass me on to my junior year of high school. You really have to do some coaxing to get them to that head space, even though ultimately, once they're there, they're happy to be there. And they recognize that like, oh, this is a way more interesting class than if I were just doing worksheet on literary illusions, you know, like kill me now. But yeah, so trying to coax those questions out of them, trying to get them to sort of read this a lot about progressive education, about how ultimately you're trying to get students to love learning. We want them to leave us and keep on keeping on with this whole process, just be a lifelong learner. And I really think the humanities, we have such an opportunity to really stoke that. And I tell my students, we're naturally curious, we're naturally interested, like give all of this a chance, like even though you're uncomfortable with the process of questioning things and having discussions and this, that and the other, like, give it a chance, give yourself a chance to like it, because you do like it, you just need to sit back and allow yourself to like it. There's a really great line from a Wendell Berry poem, he says, ask the questions that have no answers. And so I try to get them into this idea of, and a lot of this too, is what's so great about having these rural kids, because in the city, you know, a lot of times, these kids have already had a teacher who's been, you know, cool and push the envelope and that meant controversial things and have controversial conversations. But kids down the country, it's just never happening. And so when it does, they get, they're definitely, they're definitely paying attention, even even though it takes me a while to get them to sort of open up and talk. They're definitely listening. And so it's been, it's been great to get to focus more on those sort of big questions about life and hopefully, just sort of stoke that fire to be a lifelong learner, help them recognize their own interests, their own passions, their own worldviews, just through the process of just questioning.
CM: In closing, I'd like to detail some steps on enacting purpose at your school. It's one thing to theorize and another thing to implement it. This isn't prescriptive, we can't roll out initiatives to every location that will always work. But there certainly is room for suggestion. First, a story. This is from a school of our own by Samuel Levin and Susan Engle. Engle is sort of like my recent obsession. She's a child development psychology professor who has written her fair share of books, but she's never really mentioned in progressive circles. Samuel is her son who in high school started his own student-led school based off a passion project that he did. And early on, Samuel describes a situation that I really related with, I saw it so often. He talks about one of his friends who's named James. And James was regarded as a not-so-great student. He didn't take a lot of things seriously, he goofed off all the time in class, and teachers figured that he wouldn't amount to that much because he didn't take academics seriously. So they figured he wasn't that smart or he just wasn't someone who applied himself. Therefore, at least in traditional terms, he was a failure. Not to mention, James spent a lot of his time obsessing about random things that he quickly dropped. For example, he started snowboarding regularly and then he stopped. Then he wanted to be a filmmaker, and that lasted for a few weeks, then he dropped that. Then he said he wanted to be a cop, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And as Samuel explains, quote, “his teachers thought that these were just phases, passing fancies, a sign of his lack of seriousness. But what was really happening was that he was searching for exactly the thing he told me he wanted, more depth. He wanted to dive into something, to really grapple with it, to become an expert in it. And since he wasn't getting that at school, he searched for it elsewhere, often finding things that didn't quite meet his intense desire to be a master at something.” In my view, we should be creating spaces that allow for this exploration, a space where teachers can guide and help students reflect on their future life choices. I started to write these ideas for implementation actually in book form, so this might be long-winded. You know, I grapple, there's a quick aside, I grapple with the idea of writing a book not to turn a profit because it grosses me out to sell progressive ed and like sell something about how to pay well like that. But then again, to spread these ideas to a more average consumer, there is a sense that you see it in the bookstore, it gives it more validity. So in my perfect world, there would be a book about progressive education that's just full of wonder and imagery. There's a lot of actual illustrations and it's short. It recaptures that imagination of a young teacher, their obsessions when they were younger. But I digress. Here's what we could potentially do. We must frame classroom time toward exploring student-led pursuits. Notably, this is not the same as pairing subject areas to student interest. This often has the adverse effect of pairing the already apathetic school mindset to a now weaning interest that we've garnered. By providing set time during the day, coupled with discussions on why this time is given, we'll see students naturally learn. Students are natural learners. Our ultimate goal will be transitioning to this as much as possible, taking a calculated risk or dismissing certain quote unquote core content. We need to provide a space that students can work in. These spaces should be spacious, allowing for collaborative work while featuring private, quiet areas for independent study. In addition, it should be filled to the brink with tools, appliances, and software. Preferably, students would populate this space based off their request, which could build into future years. Creating, maintaining, and utilizing a space such as this would lead to fascinating experiences. Like imagine where children could come together and produce an album in a self-built soundproof music studio. Or maybe they're playing board games together. Maybe they're creating a putting green to practice golf in the winter. Maybe they make a clothing line to raise money for a nonprofit. Maybe they're just talking to each other. Maybe they're reading books in the school library. Maybe they had time to reflect and unwind from traditional school. You know, just operating a classroom where one gives students time, or even better, a school gives students time. To just seek out answers that's worthwhile, developing close relationships with every student where the teacher knows what their interests are and helps guide them on their journey, is possibly the largest life-changing event for a child. And note, this isn't supposed to be a genius hour or just a fraction of the schedule. It should just be the other way around. You give an hour of time, or maybe a little bit longer, for current mandated knowledge, with the rest of it being up to the individual or class. And to be absolutely clear, the goal is just a large space with options for activities and time to mess around. That might seem overly simplistic, but time and space is all one needs for intrinsic motivation. If one supplies ample time for self-determined options, they will fall into place. There's going to be a deprogramming period, and many students will spend initially all of their time playing video games or on their phones or talking to each other. But that's to be expected. It's natural human behavior to socialize. I mean, imagine going to any meeting among teachers without someone leading the conversation. Everyone's going to be goofing off. That free time, though, is healthy as it makes us human. Play and socialization are fundamental to our existence, and it's going to lead us down the eventual exploration of new opportunities. Then, the teacher's role is to mentor and guide. We can suggest and encourage while being careful not to cross the line toward coercion or demands. The choice, self-initiation, and responsibility that comes with ample time to intrinsically guide one's path is paramount to developing lifelong learners. Not to mention, maintaining this space, such as providing cleaning supplies and guidelines to self-police, builds a closer communal connection. So in closing, if we could build a space either amongst a school, preferably, or just even in one's classroom where you give students the opportunity to think, learn, and do, I mean, that would make a world of difference, and I challenge anyone that has even some of the means to do that to try it. If you go home every single day and you realize, man, this sucks, I don't like what I'm doing, or this could be so much better, or I don't think my kids are really getting the point of anything that they're learning, why not just try something new? Why not just take that step? It's scary, and I'll admit I haven't done all of that, but I know when I go to work, I'm at least trying my best to take the most calculated risk I possibly can. Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation was enlightening and helps you feel more confident, inspired, and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes, social media, or anywhere you see fit. The more people that share this, the more people will feel comfortable having these conversations and doing what's best for our kids. I hope the coming months are enlightening and we all take a step forward to finding our own purpose, as well as helping our students find theirs.