We are very honoured to have Chuck Sandy, Community Director of the International Teacher Development Institute, as our writer on this series. Chuck is a teacher, teacher trainer, author & educational activist with 30 years of experience in the US, Japan and Brazil. His many publications include the Passages and Connect series from Cambridge University Press and the Active Skills For Communication series from Cengage Learning. He is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the world. Chuck believes that positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time, and that it arises most readily out of dialogue and in collaboration with other educators. This is the reason he has built a Facebook group with over 9000 teachers from 24 countries that meet for ongoing educational discussions. It is also the reason he has worked to introduce Design For Change into Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and Russia. Read, enjoy and share widely.
Ten Lights Along The Way
by Chuck Sandy
I’m out on the slow roads this month, walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain, traveling one step at a time at about 3 km per hour. Still I’m getting somewhere. Each day the steps add up, and before I fully realize it, I’m further than I ever thought I could go, standing in a place I couldn’t even have imagined I’d ever be standing in. Then, after taking a good look at where I’ve wound up, I search for the next way mark and continue on. This is exactly what my career in education has been like, too. One step at a time, across the years, I’ve traveled far, getting to places in my work I’d never imagined I would be, and still I’m walking on. The books here have been some of the way marks along the way. Some have kept me from getting lost. Others have provided the encouragement I needed to keep going. More than one of these books picked me up when I thought I’d fallen and helped get me back on the path. All of them continue to be important books which continue to provide light along the way.
‘Teaching As A Subversive Activity
Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner
When Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote Teaching As A Subversive Activity in 1969, it was news. It still is. This book is as valid an attack on lock-step teaching and unimaginative schooling now as it was when they first declared that, “There are trivial ways of studying language which have no connection with life, and these we need to clear out of our schools.” One of the reasons this book has been reprinted as many times as it has over the years is that we haven’t quite managed to do this –yet. Perhaps not enough people have read it. I’ve read this book at least five times, and hanging by my door in is a card on which I’ve written these questions from the chapter entitled, “So what are you going to do now?”
What am I going to have my students do today?
What is it good for?
How do I know?
Even if you don’t read the book, try asking yourself those questions before you walk into class. Then ask the same questions of yourself when you finish teaching at the end of a day but leave the words have my students out of the first question. Make a practice of this. See what happens.
Reflecting on these questions before teaching a class, writing an activity, or deciding how to spend an afternoon has helped me to rethink the way I teach, the activities I write, the reasons I teach, and the way I live. Not bad for a book I got for less than a US dollar 30 years ago.
‘On Becoming A Person’
Roger’s beautiful book opens with these words
“I speak as a person, from a context of personal experience and personal learnings”
To offer yourself, as you are, to a group of learners is the greatest gift you can offer them. This is at the center of Roger’s work and at the core of what I believe about authentic teaching and learning.
For me, being a teacher means constantly working to become who I am while openly sharing that journey with others. My experience has been that the more I offer who I am on any particular day, the more likely it is that others will do the same. Under these conditions, real learning and teaching become more possible.
This is not an easy thing to do, and so it’s only right that On Becoming A Person is not easy reading. It asks questions like: “What is the meaning of personal growth? Under what conditions is growth possible? What is creativity and how can it be fostered? How can one person truly help another? Is it really possible to teach anyone anything?” Rogers grounds his work in a lifetime of practicing psychology and teaching to share the answers he’s arrived at. In the process of reading, you’ll likely discover your own.
Still be careful with this book. Not too long ago, a friend suggested that it is the educators who most strongly believe that teaching is a calling and not just a skill-set who end up working their way right out of teaching. My own experience speaks to this, and Rogers provides a good example of how it happens when he writes:
“My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach.”
“It seems to me that anything which can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior.”
“I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior.”
“I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.”
“Such self-discovered learning cannot be directly communicated to another.”
“As a consequence of the above, I have lost interest in being a teacher.”
While I’ve certainly felt the frustration Rogers feels, I haven’t reached that last step and don’t think I ever will — but perhaps this is because I’m alive and working at a time full of interesting alternative ways of thinking about teaching and learning that Rogers didn’t live to see. While that’s unfortunate, I’m pretty sure that the work Rogers did helped us develop those alternative ways of thinking of teaching and learning. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, this book is a good place to start.
‘A Place To Stand: Essays for Educators in Troubled Times’
Like many teachers, you might be experimenting with non-traditional ways of teaching. In Clarke’s words you’re “a change agent” promoting not just change in your learners as you create conditions that make autonomous learning more likely. You’re also promoting change in the way things are done. Fantastic!
Be ready, though. People are going to notice, and not all of these people are going to be happy. I know this from hard experience. Reading Clarke’s book has saved my career more than once. If you’re doing non-traditional things in your classroom that some might consider to be a threat to the status quo, get this book and take the following advice to heart:
Invite others in to see what you’re doing in class, but be sure to prepare these observers for what they’re going to see. Then, as your students are huddled up around laptops gathering data, while others are in some other corner practicing their presentation, while still others are noisily doing something else all together, be ready to “help others see the structure and order of events and how these build upon each other toward a coherent experience for the learners.” Then be ready to be accommodating.
Sure, I’ll get them to quiet down. Of course, we’ll use the textbook sometimes. Yes, I’ll make sure students learn what we’ve all agreed needs to be covered. Then smile, make sure you do those things, and get back to work. Then, if those in power still don’t get it and try to get you to tone things down, go find somewhere else to do the good work you’re doing.
Rose Where Did You Get That Red?
“There are a lot of poets who have the courage to look into the abyss, but very few who have the courage to look happiness in the face and write about it – which is what I wanted to be able to do” wrote Kenneth Koch. Well, not only is that exactly what he did do, he also taught a generation of New York City school children to do it, too. Then, he wrote this wonderful book about that experience so that any of us could carry on the good work he started. Whether you’re interested in introducing your students to great poetry, want some ideas about how to get them started on writing some great poetry of your own, or just want to hold something in your hands that is full of happiness, this book is for you.
‘I Won’t Learn From You and Other Thoughts On Creative Maladjustment’
We’ve all had students who have refused to learn whatever it is we set out to teach them. Perhaps, like me, you’ve even been that student. Herbert Kohl’s classic essay on actively not learning suggests that such behavior is a conscious choice made by people who “choose to not learn from a system which they feel is oppressive or deadening.”
While these active refusers might look like unmotivated failures, they’re actually working tirelessly to maintain a strategy that they truly believe is essential to their survival in a situation that is out of their control, beyond the limits of their understanding, and perhaps even a threat to their identity. In some cases they could be right.
Ok, so now what? How can we re-channel that energy? Herbert Kohl has some good suggestions that have helped me numerous times over the years — both as a teacher working with such students and as a learner who has found himself in such situations. The three other essays in the book are equally brilliant and humane. My favorite is The Tattooed Man: Confessions of A Hopemonger. This autobiographical essay will make you proud you’re a teacher and thankful that you’ve had the chance to “become an explorer with the goal of uncovering or helping your students uncover the gifts and strengths which can nurture them as they grow.”
How Children Fail
I’ll let Holt speak for himself, but as you read, replace the word children with the word teachers and the word learning with teaching. Watch what happens.
“Schools assume that children are not interested in learning and are not much good at it, that they will not learn unless made to, that they cannot learn unless shown how, and that the way to make them learn is to divide up the prescribed material into a sequence of tiny tasks to be mastered one at a time, each with its appropriate ‘morsel’ and ‘shock.’ And when this method doesn’t work, the schools assume there is something wrong with the children — something they must try to diagnose and treat.”
“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that … My work is to help it grow. ”
That’s my work, too, and since you’ve read this far, it’s probably your work, too. The good news is, we’re no longer the one percent. We’re a movement whose members do not quite make up a majority yet, but we’ll get there in my lifetime. I’m sure of it.
John F. Fanselow
“Only by engaging in the generation and exploration of alternatives will we be able to see. And then we will see that we must continue to look.”
Look carefully until you just might be seeing what’s really there and what’s really going on. Describe that in as much detail as possible. Then change something and look some more. What’s happening now? How is it different? Now describe this in as much detail as possible. Avoid making judgements and stay as far as you can from words like bad, worse, good, better, and best. Now, change something else. Look again. Soon you’ll realize that nothing is the way you think it is, few things are permanent, and that you have the power to change almost anything. That’s what I’ve learned in twenty-five years of rule-breaking. It’s become a way of life.
We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change
While everything that Freire wrote has had a big influence on how I think about teaching, learning, and schooling, this book is the one which includes these lines:
“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
This is a wonderful little volume that is often overlooked even by teachers who’ve fallen in love with Palmer’s classic The Courage To Teach. It’s in this book that Palmer writes …
“We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs …”
Say what? Well, he almost echoes Freire, doesn’t he? Simply said: we’re not here to save anyone, shape anyone, or even change anyone, and certainly not to coerce anyone into fulfilling our own need for personal fulfillment, professional acceptance, love, power, control or whatever. Oh, I’ve never done anything like that and never would you say, and and I’ll say the same thing. But let’s be honest. We’re human. Writers like Parker Palmer help us more fully accept that fact.
Teaching to Transgress: Education as The Practice of Freedom
I like what Bell Hooks says here:
“There are times when personal experience keeps us from reaching the mountain top and so we let it go because the weight of it is too heavy. And sometimes the mountain top is difficult to reach with all our resources, factual and confessional, so we are just there, collectively grasping, feeling the limitations of knowledge, longing together, yearning for a way to reach that highest point. Even this yearning is a way to know.”
Yes, even that collective yearning of ours to keep improving ourselves, even that constant longing to be better teachers is a way to know. No, we’ll never reach the mountaintop but we’ll never stop trying, will we? No, we won’t. We walk on. May you find light along the way.