If you’re in any way exposed to the blather regarding schools today, you’d have every reason to think that all involved -the (ignorant, low achieving) kids and their (alienated) families as well as their (overpaid, lazy) staff – are suffering in stifling, stupefying, slovenly systems. Anybody willing to visit the schools themselves – away from the noise of Waiting For Superman, Oprah, or Rhee – is likely to find a different story: it’s hard to remember that 3 out of 4 parents are happy with their child’s school education.
Last night, I went to a meeting at Sunnyside Environmental School called by Portland Public Schools to discuss the unique qualities and challenges that school faces in order to inform the search for a new principal. My experience with Sunnyside is pretty extensive: For 5 years, I taught at Environmental Middle School (its incarnation prior to switching buildings and becoming a K-8); my children have attended the school for the last six years. Given that experience and how much time I spend thinking about teaching, learning, and leadership, I didn’t have too much trouble thinking about how I’d spend my two minutes at the mic.
What I was amazed by – stunned, inspired, thrilled by – was the passionate enthusiasm consistently represented by all sorts of other speakers. The supremely gifted science teacher, Ginny Stern, started the comments with a demonstration of Newton’s First Law of Motion that became a metaphor for the importance of trust and the costs of fear. Her demonstration put a spotlight on kids (literally, using mirrors and flashlights), who were present in small numbers (it was a school night, after all) but whose contributions were always spot on. It was a night filled with riveting, celebratory offerings made by teachers, parents, and students, all of whom connected in one way or another to the school’s “Guiding Principles”:
- There exists an inherent trust in an emergent learning process that grows naturally within the guidance of a caring and committed community of adults.
- Intellectual curiosity and high academic standards grow out of compelling thematic units of study that connect students to overlapping social and biological communities.
- An awareness of seasonal cycles roots students in their community and invests them in the learning process.
- Play, at all ages, is a valued part of an individual’s cognitive and social development.
- Children benefit from large blocks of time to learn outdoors and in the community.
- Mixed aged experiences develop and utilize the natural forms of mentoring, while highlighting the expertise and talents of a community’s members.
- Parents are children’s first teachers and are seen as essential partners in the education of all students at the school.
- Gratitude is nurtured and acknowledged as an essential part of a satisfying life.
- Joy is nurtured through singing, dancing, preparing food and gathering as a community.
- Service-learning empowers students to make a difference in the world while developing core academics and leadership skills.
- Cooperative learning and responsibility for all members of the learning community lead to an appreciation of kindness and trust between students.
- The unique talents and learning styles of all members of the community are valued and given a place in the curriculum.
- Students are engaged in issues of local and global citizenship in a process that intentionally develops leadership while empowering students to make a difference.
- Schools provide satisfying and rich experiences that instill a sense of well being, support and community in their members. This vision is rich in mentoring by adults, embedded with real life skills and based on a sense of cooperation.
It’s so easy to get stuck in details and confuse tools (standards, tests, schedules) with principles and values. What a treat to spend an evening thinking about what really counts. I started the month attending an Education Leadership class at Lewis and Clark College that I’ve since dropped. If the class had been half as inspiring or provocative as last night’s meeting at Sunnyside, Lewis and Clark would have kept my $1700!