1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Animus Against Totality

The Agnostic Teacher

I teach at a public high school. Every year we get some lecture about the separation of church and state, viz., Christmas. This year was particularly onerous: "Keep your beliefs to yourself" we were told. In other words, share your lives with these kids but only up to the point where God, the Mystery, the Infinite enters in. Whether or not this adminstrator's interpretation of church-state jurisprudence would stand up to legal scrutiny (I think not), her remarks do reflect the mentality of so-called public educators: Ignore religion, politics or anything else that might be controversial. Ah, but then, what is left to talk about? Sports, perhaps?

A School That Educates the Whole Person

Thus is it reasonable to begin a public charter school that takes the humanity of the students seriously -- when our understanding of their humanity includes a religious dimension?

-Can we even help students to ask the right kinds of questions when "practical atheism" holds sway over the "public" education machine?

-Is the price of public funding the suppression of fundamental questions such as What is the meaning of everything? Who or what will answer my need to totality? How can I find happiness?

-If we can ask the questions, are we still constrained by an inability to propose certain answers as helpful, true or meaningful?

-If we can ask all the right questions but not give coherent or meaningful answers, are we not simply setting up the students for a sceptical outlook on life? (The teacher is always an authority of some stripe, so a teacher that says "I dunno" to meaningful questions is a weak, pathetic figure)

All of this takes us back to a question raised by a previous post, The Freedom to Educate : Is the price of freedom to educate charging parents tuition? Or can some via media be found?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Cult of Experts

An irreverent prologue.

Question: How many bureaucrats does it take to solve a simple problem?

Answer: An indefinite number because the number of bureaucrats (=B) is always inversely related to the simplicity of the problem (=P): P1 = B10; P2 = B5; P3 = B1.

For example, a simple problem like too few books in a classroom will likely be solved by (A) hiring a consultant to determine why books are needed in the modern classroom or (B) a seminar for all staff on how to be more creative in the classroom or (C) some combination of the above or (D) or other "solutions" equally useless.

Notice in the "formula" above that the more intractable the problem, the fewer bureaucrats to be found. Real problem require work, which is antithetical to the bureaucratic faith that there is no problem they cannot solve, unless it involves actual work.

The real problem: Intelligence outsourced.

"Thanks to the progress of technology, the greater part of the restraints imposed on us by the cosmos have disappeared and, along with the, the crative personal effort which thos restraints demanded ... The frontiers of good and eviil have vanished in a mist of ideologies, whims, and appetites ... As everyone knows, few observations and much discussion are conducive to error: much observation and little discussion to truth" (Alexis Carrel, Reflections on Life).

Put into an educational context, there is much talk but little observation of occuring reality within actual classrooms with the aim of solving problems. More often there is so-called research which is bandied about without doing much of anything about the status quo. In fact, the cult of research may simply mask problems by creating a sense that "something is being done" when in fact, nothing is being done.

Let us vow to place our experience at the forefront of our judgments. This does not mean despising research or avoiding study; rather, let the theory be tested and "read" through the lenses of our "I"s.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Counter-intuitive Films

Some films and their possible application to the spirit and vision of our school. In roughly alphabetical order.

Signs (2002). A fascinating meditation on how life's meaning unfolds through time, people, events, and - sigh - extraterrestrials. Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess who has lost faith in God and everything else after his wife's death. With the appearance of "crop circles" on his property, he seeks rational, pragmatic answers but these answers are ultimately unreasonable.

Though he fights it, Graham ultimately takes his dying wife's counsel to "see." Thus he connects the seemingly random events of his son's asthma, his daughter's obsession with "dirty" and "contaminated" water, and his younger brother's short-lived baseball career. Her death mysteriously leads to their living.

Isn't this the point of education: to help us see? Scanning high school graduation requirements, one may wonder what the point of all these disconnected courses mean. Helping students to sort out the important from the non-essential will be part of our critical role. Others may not be clear on what the point of what has been traditionally called a "liberal arts education" is, but we have the opportunity to show students that reality is coherent. Perhaps "show" is not the right word. How about provide them with a way of judging reality and their own experience?

The Terminator (1984). No, I'm not joking. This is a significant quotation:
Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn): "John Connor gave me a picture of you once. I didn't know why at the time. It was very old - torn, faded. You were young like you are now. You seemed just a little sad. I used to always wonder what you were thinking at that moment. I memorized every line, every curve. I came across time for you Sarah. I love you; I always have."

In the context of a new school, I take it to mean: We, like Kyle Reese, are going into the past for a kind of beauty that fascinates us. Yet that beauty is also something contemporaneous (not dead). Through out students we help perpetuate something more, something greater than we possess in the shattered ruins of our post-modern present. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088247/

A Third Way?

I see two kinds of charter schools out there that have attractive elements: The classical variety and the experiential learning model. (The charter schools that simply adopt public school models on a smaller scale leave me cold.)

One of the classical variety puts their approach to education this way:
"The classical approach to education can be described as a journey to meaning. It begins with students acquiring knowledge through a wide familiarity with literature, history, science, math, music, arts, people, and places. Liberty's purpose is to lead young people on an odyssey of the mind and heart, which will steer them towards self-reliance." -- Liberty Common School in Fort Collins.
(See http://www.libertycommon.org/about_us/classical_education/index.htm)

Here's a more free-flowing experiential type of school:
"Skyland's vision for educating one student at a time can best be understood based on The Five A's: 1. Academic vigor – student learning is in-depth, engages at a high level, and challenges them to learn new skills and knowledge; 2. Active learning – hands-on work leads to a product that reflects the student's level of effort; 3. Authenticity – student work reflects real-world learning and application; 4. Adult relationships – students work closely with adults (teachers and mentors) who help them pursue their passions and interests; 5. Assessment – student work is evaluated against professional standards, aligns to state model content standards, reflects a body of work, and includes student reflection." -- Skyland Community High School in Denver.
(See http://www.cde.state.co.us/scripts/chartersearchresults.asp)

A Third Way.
Classical schools are great for bringing the Western tradition to students; progressive schools emphasize things like relevance, relationships and authenticity. I think there is a need for both. The problem is that most people seem to see this as an "either/or" proposition: one is for tradition or for progressivism. This is, of course, an ideological reduction.

Someone who recognized the need for a holistic education was Luigi Giussani (see recommended reading elsewhere on this blog). In The Risk of Education he discusses three elements necessary for education to be truly "an introduction to the whole of reality":

1. Tradition as a proposal or hypothesis of meaning. All teachers do this consciously or not. What we say or fail to say communicates our approach not only to the "subject" but are approach to life itself.

2. This tradition becomes a problem for the student and creates in him or her a "crisis." What Socrates, Buddha or Jesus or Marx or Freud or whomever might have said years ago is reduced to trivia if the student does not encounter for himself or herself the problem posed. The tradition must become existentially relevant for the student.

3. The student is entrusted (yet accompanied by the teacher and others) to verify the hypothesis of meaning that his been proposed. The student moves to seeing tradition as a problem but is given the freedom to say, "Yes, what I've learned is true" or "No, it's garbage" or "I'm not sure." In any event, the student learns a method for approaching life that does reduce problems to ideological categories.

This is only a rough sketch of his approach to education. Please see http://crossroadsnyc.com/files/giussani_education.pdf for a transcript of an address Giussani delivered in 1985. It is The Risk of Education in an abbreviated yet very accessible form.

Websites and Blogs

Here are few websites and blogs that may be of interest.

Colorado Charter Schools is a blog with links and interesting reflections on charters. I don't know who the author of the blog is.

Colorado Charter Schools on the Colorado Department of Educatation website. Law, policy, links. Indespensible for our work.

Challenge To Excellence Charter School in Parker, Colorado. K-8 but interesting education philosophy.

Parent/Student Handbooks

A parent student handbook tells students and parents and the community what our school stands for and what it won't stand for. Here are some examples from inside and outside Colorado.

Frontier Academy Secondary. Charter HS (part of three K-12 schools). High expectations from students. Are some of these policies legal? I hope so because many of them sound like policies from a private or parochial school.

Interesting Articles

Below are some links to articles I found helpful. This will be added to periodically.

"A School Built for Horace" by T.R. Sizer and N.F. Sizer.
"Horace Smith" is a fictional high school teacher in a book called Horace's Comprise which chronicles how "one size fits all" high schools demoralizes students and staff alike. The article is about the authors involvement in starting a charter school in Massachusetts. It has good insights on the compromises that may be necessary to get a school running but how fidelity to vision pays off.

"Education: What’s the Point?" by Stephen Bertucci.
Bertucci argues that "the end [goal] of education is to help us to learn to love what is true and good and beautiful."

"Where Everyone Can Overachieve" by Victoria Murphy in Forbes Magazine.
This is about High Tech High School in San Diego. Here's an interesting thing on enrollment: "In July 2000 the school sent out 40,000 flyers with applications, filling the mailboxes of every eighth-grader in San Diego. The school got 1,000 applicants for 150 spots."