Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Courage to Hope: My New Educational Philosophy

by Dan Bruno

I was recently asked about my educational philosophy. It has been a number of years since my first Social Foundations professor asked me to write one up, asked me to define what it was that made me teach. While the core premise has not changed much, a lot of what I do with that focus has.

If you were to read the document, which I will spare you from doing for now, you would see the usual ed school rhetoric about Deweyism, Horace Mann, and community. You would see a young teacher passionate about teaching as a craft that builds strong bonds between community members. You would see a call for less griping and more rising to the multiplicity of occasions we confront daily. So, what could possibly be wrong with this message?

The problem is not the message, but the context of those messages. I find myself baffled that in an era of such hyperfocus on literacies of all kinds we have an election cycle consisting, so far, of a woman who may or may not have committed treason via an e-mail server (if you ever want to have a surreal moment, type the previous thirteen words in an erstwhile manner), an old guy who thinks, despite the evidence of the 20th century, that somehow the US is the country to get Socialism right, a walking, talking obscenity whose amoral lifestyle has served to at least draw a line between actual Christians and those who identify as "Evangelicals" in polls, a Canadian Texan (also a surreal statement), and probably the only lawmaker who is relevant in politics and knows what a surplus looks like (say what you will about John Kasich, but at least he had the guts to say, on television no less, that the Republican Congress that left when Bill Clinton left was shocked that anyone could blow through trillions of dollars in surplus funds). Literate people should not be fooled by this menagerie of candidates; and yet, if I check the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, the heady sounds of Beavis and Butthead chortling in unison ring out of posts depicting Anderson Cooper saying that Trump responds like a 5-year-old. Heh Heh, He started it, Beavis, Heh Heh.

I recently read a New York Times editorial about our anti-intellectual culture, and that is where I think my educational philosophy from all of those years ago is wrong. I think the idea that English teachers are to be literacy leaders and advocates is doomed as long as we are bound by the four walls of our public school institutions. Our voices have become as Alice Walker depicts Harpo's whistle in The Color Purple: a sound trapped in the bottom of a jar, submerged in the bottom of a creek. If we are to be relevant to the communities we serve, we must make literacy a bigger part of the way we interact with the community.

Lately, a lot of the policy discussion in education is about who will take what test and how that will assess the literacy and readiness of students to be critical consumers of information. This state is opting for this, that state is opting out of that, and so on. Meanwhile, the most obvious formative assessment of all continues to rage on in front of our eyes: if this truly is the tone of our national conversation, then the era of high stakes testing has failed in monumental and culturally devastating ways.

One of my roles at the school where I teach is to advisor a handful of students with their senior research project. The other day, as I was working with one young person, I suggested that a strong argument considers the counterarguments and then refutes them. The student disagreed. After all, Donald Trump doesn't let other candidates or the media tell him what to think or say. (sigh)

I believe deeply in the mission of our nation and the role educational institutions have to play in that mission; however, as a teacher who has been teaching for over a decade, I feel responsible for the solar eclipse of ignorance that is blotting out the radiant light of free thought. Responses like those given by Presidential candidates and the aforementioned student stem from the type of all-or-nothing, multiple-choice thinking that standardization creates. And before anyone tries to point out the state exams that have free response questions on them, I say that an essay question designed with a right answer in mind does not mitigate this all-or-nothing approach.

In his final Annual Report, Horace Mann summarized his vision of the American Common, or Public, School in this way:

Like the sun, it shines, not only upon the good, but upon the evil, that they may become good; and, like the rain, its blessings descend, not only upon the just, but upon the unjust, that their injustice may depart from them and be known no more.
How much more moving and honest is this ideal than the tripe spouted by our Presidential candidates. In a move of bewildering rhetorical bluster, Hilary Clinton claimed that she "wouldn't keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job...If a school's not doing a good job, then that may not be good for the kids." Besides the urge in my heart to pull out a red pen, circle the end of this statement, and demand that she revise to provide more context and an actual point,  this utterance mirrors the same blame and shame methodology most politicians use when referring to one of the single most remarkable achievements of the United States as a nation. If you were wondering what the non-politician Presidential candidate thinks on the issue, feast your eyes on this abomination:
Comprehensive education dissolves the lines between knowing too much and knowing too little on a variety of subjects--subjects that are necessary for success. Recently, I interviewed a young man who was very well versed in his field of expertise and almost uneducated in every other subject. It was like he had tunnel vision, and although I admired his knowledge of his field, I had to realize that, considering the scope of my enterprises, he might not be a great fit because of his limited interests.
Now, putting aside the irony that this comes from a book titled Think Like a Champion, I am almost stunned to silence by the notion that a "capitalist" (I use the term loosely since I often feel it is misrepresented by both opponents and proponents) would be so vehemently opposed to specialization. Moreover, any literate person should be able to do some wikipedia-level research (what I call wiki-search) to read about the "success" of the scope of Donald Trump's "enterprises." As I recently wrote on a document about what I want my 12th grade students to know and be able to do: Students should understand what self-esteem is and how it is generated by accomplishments. Everyone has accomplished something; given the limitation of death and the frailty of our biology, I would venture to say that no one has ever accomplished everything he or she set out to do. We are better people when we learn to recognize the limitations of our lives and use them to accomplish those things about which we dream. Besides, I want the surgeon who really focused on perfecting that procedure that will save my life, not one who also enjoys selling high-quality steaks and attending universities that provide no degree programs (or, for that matter, who believes that underperforming hospitals should just close their doors instead of redoubling their efforts to save as many patients as they can).

I recently took my sons to see the new film Zootopia. I was impressed; mostly I was impressed because Disney took on an actual film noir style plot and managed to keep it interesting for this adult in the audience, but I was also impressed at the way the writers balanced the wonder and magic of Disney with the idea that our realities are all very concrete. The main character is depicted achieving her dreams in the face of adversity through grit, hard work, and resilience. No magic wands, beans, or other accoutrements for our hero.

Which leads me to this call to arms: do what you can in your communities to lead the discussion and appreciation of literate lives from out behind the cloistered walls of the school building. My own idea is not fully formed, but my proposal exists, such as it is, in this form presently: a book club for the parents of my students that meets once every other month in the evening. I will use this forum as a way to not only share book talks with the people in the community I serve, but also to introduce these parents to some of the great books that could become part of the curriculum.

I am not naive. I understand that I may get low turnout and significant levels of community apathy or even scorn at this idea. But, honestly, how is that any different than anything else I do as a teacher on a daily basis. I understand the limitations, but a guy can dream, can't he?

So, how has my philosophy changed? Simple. Teachers are still community leaders. They still serve students, not parents. They still provide the skills to lead a literate life. But my mission includes a brand new imperative: I will teach to provide hope to my students that their dreams matter, that those dreams can only be made more real by the literacy skills they pick up in my classroom, and that they can use the heft of that hope to smash the opaque, jaded view ahead and shape the limitations of the present into a new vision for the future.

Author's Note: It strikes me as I write this that I am using the word "Presidential" to describe behaviors that are less than civil.