24 April 2013

Elysian Fields

I'm out in the boony-toolys this week. I don't mind---I wanted to come out and spend a couple of days with schools out here. (I also spent a few days in a different rural region a couple of weeks ago.) I grew up in the sticks and remember quite well what it is to have a 3-hour drive to the nearest McDonalds (or to use today's terms: Starbucks). But there are teachers and kids here, just as there are in more populous environs. And they have Common Core, online testing, new teacher evaluation models, and a host of other initiatives heading straight at them. I know, everyone does, but not quite like these schools. I don't know of any teachers in "larger" (i.e. more than 200 students) districts that do not have any contractual planning time and who drive the school bus (in addition to teaching in a multi-age, multi-prep environment). Other than these situations, I don't see para-educators who have to double as the lunch lady and cook food for all the kids. I don't meet superintendents who have to also serve as curriculum director, SPED director, assessment coordinator, business manager, and crossing guard. And so far, everyone I've met in these roles does all these things with a smile on their face and cannot imagine having a better job.

Many of the staff---including administrators and teachers---grew up in the area and came back to the school. It is their school. And while most educators may feel that way about their building, it's different in these little districts. There is a heightened level of passion for and pride in a place that you attended as a child, and now teach your classmates' children...knowing you will be there when their grandchildren come through.

One of the buildings I toured this afternoon is one of the oldest continuously operated school buildings in the state. It opened in 1908, and you have to wonder if the community realized at the time just how long the school would last and how many generations would pass through the doors. Not all of the buildings are so old. I would say that the majority of what I've seen in these districts was built between 1955 and 1965---baby boomer years. After the war, it appears that there was quite the emphasis on new schools for the children born of the Greatest Generation. I have to say that these buildings are in marvelous condition for their age---far better than any school in a larger place that is from the same era. Sure, the architecture is a bit dated, but the structures are aging well, mainly because small class sizes cause such little wear and tear.

The social contract between families and community takes on a very 1950's tone out here, too. There is a strong expectation that "kids get to be kids." This is helped along by growing up in a place where cell phones don't work, there's no such thing as cable tv, and home Internet still runs on dial-up. Being 15 years old in a place like this is a lot like when your parents were 15 and growing up here.  Being 5 is focused on playing with your friends outside. The community offers what it can to the school, and as one superintendent said today, it's important to listen to that offer and make it work. If a retiree with a tractor wants to level some ground for a ball field, and the dairy will donate top soil, then you find the rest of the money to make the project happen. If three women want to put a library in your 5-teacher school, find a place for them and give it your blessing. In these towns, children are "our" kids, not just in terms of school, but how everyone sees them.

There is an idyllic, pastoral gestalt that comes with being here...like some sort of ecological habitat for schooling. And here come the developers, ready to pave paradise and put up a CCSS parking lot. I continue to struggle with the idea that these students deserve access to an education that will make them "career and college ready." How does that balance against the backdrop of the culture that they live in (and likely their children, too)? Can any entity claim it knows what's best for these kids, other than the community itself?

I am not here to push CCSS. Or assessment of any flavour. Or teacher evaluation. I am here to help them connect with one another and provide an opportunity for them to have some professional conversation about what happens in their classrooms---whatever is important to them. I am here to listen to whatever they choose to share and learn whatever I can. I wish others would do that, too.

1 comment:

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Beautiful post, SG. You have evoked an image for me of my own schooling in the 50s and 60s. Ironically, I went to school smack in the middle of Long Island, NY. No cable, no internet, no cell phones...now look at the place.

Were we any less "career and/or college ready" back then?

Your rural schools should be models for urban education -- without federal presence and pressure. Who says the "teacher has to appear" before "the student is ready"? We all figure out, sooner (as in high school) or later, that we have to direct ourselves to be ready for that career or college experience. We can present the opportunity, but the student has to want it.

All that said, we pretty much know what makes great teaching, and it's not rocket science. But sometimes I think great teaching is squeezed out of the picture by unreasonable, ever-changing curriculum standards and testing demands that originate far outside the community.

I know the "good old days" didn't seem that great when they were happening, but they sure rock looking back. :)