Guiding Principles

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!



10 responses to “Guiding Principles

  1. Thank you not only for your attendance and participation at last night’s SES meeting, but for your years of service to the institution of teaching, and to the SES community in all the many ways you serve. I’m quite taken with your blog and it’s mission. While I’m not going to subscribe to it at the present, I will bookmark it so that I can easily refer back to it as needed.
    BTW, recently when my son, who’s blessed to be in Jan Z’s 5th grade class, participated in Colonial Days, we had the occassion to watch LIBERTY!, the amazing DVD from PBS, that in 6 hourlong episodes, covers the years from right before the Townsend Act, all the way to the formation of The USA. Although Forrest Sawyer hosts, the rest of the cast and the entire production is well-done. Perhaps you have some other DVD’s you can recommend for family viewing to increase our knowledge and working understanding of the history that shaped our nation?

    • Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving a comment, Nikki.
      I think that the reason that “Liberty!” was successful viewing for your family probably had to do with the way in which it built on the interests your son developed as a result of his class experiences (which I wrote about here.) Rather than looking for dvds covering the arc of American history, it might make more sense to focus in on what curiosities he’s developing. So, the starting questions are, What’s he interested in? What’s he wondering about? Theo was interested in Colonial tensions, so we enjoyed watching The Last of The Mohicans – but, as your experience with Liberty! suggests, he might have just as likely enjoyed The War that Made America. One last thought: We’re finding audio (through productions like Radiolab and This American Life) as engaging as video.
      Finding ways to make tv watching interesting deepen family learning experiences is a worthwhile endeavor: it would be great if parents and teachers contributed their ideas about powerful videos for young folk here.

  2. I’ve used This American Life for History and English instruction. Most segments are 10-15 min and 99.9% of the time are thought provoking and an easy way to build inquiry and discussion. I will be using TAL’s ongoing series on the economy for my CWP seniors once a week. TAL also has segment when the Bank of Clark County failed and was taken over by the feds:

  3. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Tony. I don’t know if you heard episode 424, “Kid Politics”, but there is so much there for teachers and students to discuss
    Nikki was asking about things to watch with her fifth grader, though. Any suggestions from the Liberatore home?

  4. I liked what you said at the meeting, Matt, and I’m glad you created this post.

    I was just reading David Brooks’ article “Social Animal” in the January 17th New Yorker in which he writes about how we ‘make sense of a life.’ Though Mr. Brooks and I rarely agree on anything 100%, I liked the article. Part of what I disagree with today is his contention that “The traits that do make a difference [in creating personal fulfillment or outstanding accomplishment]…can’t be taught in a classroom….”

    Part of what I like so much about SES is that we strive to teach just what Mr. Brooks says is not possible in schools: “the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures.”

    May it ever be so.


    • Hi Heidi –
      Thanks for visiting the site and leaving the comment. You’re the second person who surprised me by directing me to the Brooks article, which was enough to get me over to the New Yorker. From the first page, the article affirms the choices SES makes:

      Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows…. The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.

      Sunnyside seems more in sync with the research Brooks reports than the Tiger Moms and the Races to the Top. I’m looking forward to spending more time thinking about this…

  5. Tony Liberatore

    Matt – I did here that show and the segment on Reagan and Grenada was disturbing in a few ways (including the way it was presented). For my kids I haven’t really shown any history docs/movies/shows yet. My oldest (11) has always had a interest in geo and therefore atlases so we’ve explored the World History Atlas together. When both were younger I found some good books about early Am History just to introduce the topic and people. My favorite is John, Paul, George, and Ben; clever, accurate, and funny.

    • Thanks, Tony. I just started reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains. The main character is a young slave in New York on the eve of the Revolution. While early on it’s not grabbing me in the same way Octavian Nothing did, I think it’s a much better fit for 5th through 8th graders: I fear that Octavian Nothing is just too alien, too Gothic for most kids that young. I also love that Chains begins each chapter begins with a selection from a primary document – which points to a great direction for integrating primary documents into historical fiction in the classroom.
      It’s the first of three – Forge is the second, the third hasn’t yet been published – so I’m hoping it keeps building.

  6. Way to go Matt! This from your own larger community of admirers. I may save your statement to share with some Courage to Lead colleagues with your permission!

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