Letter to Marv

March 27, 2007

February 2, 2007

Dear Marv—

Thank you, thank you for encouraging people to read the books, certainly, and for inviting me to speak with your wonderful colleagues and the incredible Urban Teacher folks.  I left energized and excited—mostly to meet a group of young people who are so smart and engaged, reflective and curious, hard-working and energetic, ethically ambitious and committed.  What a wondrous teaching life you’re inhabiting.
But I also left gasping for breath—so many roads opened, so many issues raised, so much flying through the air, and nothing really brought to an end.  I felt inadequate to the task in a thousand ways.  So, for me and for you, for everyone I think, the conversation must simply continue.
Large contradictions productively punctuated much of the discussion, I thought, and several specific questions floated within them.  One, of course, was the tension for teachers of working in real classrooms in real schools and systems while fighting to hold on to and find ways to enact their best thinking about learning and teaching.  This is a contradiction I’ve never resolved in my own teaching, but one that I think must be acknowledged and addressed continually.   In other words, teachers who put the tension easily to rest by embracing one or the other branch, will find themselves less productive with students and ultimately dissatisfied with themselves.  The alternative is to choose this tension as a space within which to discuss and to struggle, a place to live, a contradiction to teach into.
I think all conscientious teacher need to ask themselves this: What do I need to know in order to be successful with this kid and with this one and with this one?  Surely knowledge of subject matter and the curriculum and the disciplines is an important part of the answer.  And, of course, knowledge about the school and its expectations.  But no less important is knowledge about the child, and more: knowledge about the contexts and circumstances of his or her life—family, community, culture, and on and on—knowledge of the society and the world we’re initiating youngsters into.  And don’t forget knowledge of yourself.  This is not only vast, but it’s also dynamic and swirling and expanding and changing.  So our work is cut out for us.
But to say either, “My job is to get kids ready for the real world, for society as it is,” or “My job is to water the little seedlings and watch them grow” is to misunderstand the contradiction and reduce the complexity.  The real world?  Which one?  When I was first teaching I had an argument with colleagues who thought that since the real world was vicious, tough, unfair, competitive, and mean, we should turn our Head Start center into a boot-camp for three-year-olds.
And on the other side, the watering-the-seeds side: I’ve known lots of teachers who wanted desperately to be kind and to be liked, and failed then to challenge kids to read.  “I love these kids so much,” one would say, “and their lives are so hard, I just want to nurture them.”  Failing to teach them to read is not exactly an act of love.
So the tension: I teach them to read as an act of love; I struggle to nourish and challenge in the same gesture; I respect the people who walk through the door, embrace them as fellow human beings, and I invite and push them toward deeper and wider ways of knowing.
And more: all children need to be given a sense of the unique capacity of human beings to shape and create reality in concert with conscious purposes and plans.  This means that our schools need to be transformed to provide children with ongoing opportunities to exercise their resourcefulness to solve the real problems of their communities.  Like all human beings, children and young people need to be of use.  They cannot just be treated as “objects” and taught “subjects.”  Their cognitive juices will begin to flow if and when their hearts, heads and hands are engaged in improving their daily lives and their surroundings.  Make some space for that.
Just imagine how much safer and livelier and more peaceful our neighborhoods would be almost overnight if we reorganized education.  If instead of trying to keep our children isolated in classrooms, we engaged them in community-building activities with the same audacity with which the civil rights movement engaged them in desegregation activities 40 years ago: planting community gardens, recycling waste, organizing neighborhood arts and health festivals, rehabbing houses, painting public murals.  By giving children and young people a better reason to learn than just the individualistic one of getting a job or making more money, by encouraging them to exercise their minds and their hearts and their soul power we would get their cognitive juices moving.  Learning would then come from practice.
Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms isolated from the community and structured only to prepare them for a distant and quickly disappearing and hostile job market, we need to recognize that the reason why so many young people drop out from inner city schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system which sorts, tracks, tests, and rejects or certifies them like products of a factory.  They are crying out for another kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as human beings.
In fact, formal education as it is now structured bears a large part of the responsibility for our present crisis.  By its failure to provide young people with experiences in how to be responsible citizens, it has produced several generations of morally sterile technicians who have more know-how than know-why.
Look at Article 29 (1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: “State Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:
(a)  The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;
(b)  The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;
(c)  The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country form which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different form his or her own;
(d)  The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and person of indigenous origins;
(e)  The development of respect for the natural environment.”
We might start in our classrooms by trying to live up to this simple, eloquent internationally recognized standard.
Of course we’re up against a series of obstacles, and we talked some about expectations and stereotypes concerning teachers, kids, whole communities.  The path ahead isn’t easy for anyone.  There’s no formula or easy way laid out to become a great teacher.  The one commitment we can each make—a kind of standard we can aspire to forever—is to work toward living our teaching lives in such a way that they don’t make a mockery of our teaching values.