Asking the Hard Questions

Last month I spoke to Deborah Donahue Keegan and Steve Cohen’s Tufts University undergraduate education classes. About half the students had spent a morning a week all semester volunteering at Charlestown High School in Boston. Others had visited Boston Arts Academy. Many had read my book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test. Others had been reading current educational theory about what makes schools successful. All came to class curious and filled with questions.

Here are some of them:

1. How do you create a nurturing school culture?
2. What makes a good art educator?
3. Are all students inherently artists?
4. How do you build creativity especially in a developing country?
5. What are the biggest challenges of setting up a school?
6. What do you wish you’d known when you first started out?

Our conversation touched on many themes. I began by discussing that what makes a good art educator is the same as what makes a good educator—the ability to listen to young people, to connect to young people’s passions, to create lessons that are challenging but have support. I reminded the students that teachers, and leaders, have to be able to go home at the end of the day and, even if it was an awful day, they have to have the capacity to come back tomorrow with new perspective and generosity. Holding grudges will get you nowhere. And I talked about some of my own early (and recent) faux pas as a teacher and a leader. I discussed the importance of knowing the community that is the school and the community from which students enter. I recalled trying to teach mathematical concepts early in my teaching career that I thought were “cool” but had no bearing on anything students had seen or done previously. I was grateful for a principal who re-directed me and told me to teach what was in the curriculum and save my ‘creative’ ideas about the importance of Egyptian numerology until I had a semblance of control over my unruly middle schoolers.

I especially loved the question about how to build creativity in young people and I was reminded, sadly, that with an over-exposure to high stakes testing and to curriculum that is all about teaching to the test, creativity will be diminished. And for our nation and our world that would be a travesty. We must invest in story telling, in drawing, painting, acting, moving, playing music—all sorts of creative play—otherwise we risk creating a citizenry that lacks the ability to ponder questions about judgment or perspective or seeing the world from someone else’s cultural or linguistic lens.

One student wanted to probe the connection between a strong and positive school community and individual excellence or success. Is there a balance? Does too much community create a lack of individual ownership? I found these to be intriguing questions but in my own experience a strong community and culture is the basis for strong individual success. Unfortunately too many of our institutions, schools and others privilege individual access and success way above the ability to collaborate or create a strong sense of community. I wonder if some of these Tufts students will have the chance to get this right.

One young man said to me, “I’m a freshman and I love math and hope to major in math. When I visited BAA I was so excited by the math teaching there and the way teachers and students talked about math. Maybe that’s what I want to do. “ Another student thanked me for coming and said, “I never realized that all children are inherently artists.” Many students talked about how they would reflect differently on their own schooling and consider whether their school had been good for them or for all of the students. Another student shared that even though she wasn’t going to go into formal education in the future, “everyone has a chance to educate…and the themes you’ve raised are important for all of us.”

I appreciated the graciousness and gratitude that these young people greeted me with. I left feeling buoyed by their insights and emerging connections to public education.

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