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Notes on education: Cultivating the spark

Like most teachers, I’m sure, I hold onto the most meaningful cards and notes I have received from students and parents over the years. As I wrap up my first summer as Dean of Studies at EXPLO’s Senior Program, after nearly 20 years of classroom teaching, I have been reflecting on what continues to excite me about being an educator, and what we must not lose sight of, despite all the cacophony of recent years.

Schools and school communities are certainly not immune from the cynicism and controversy coursing throughout our society today. But as someone who has always viewed my own work as an educator with so much joy, I choose to think of schools as places of inspiration and promise, and students and teachers as partners in a sometimes harrowing, but always rewarding, journey.

In the spirit of meeting the moment with this same sense of positivity, particularly as I embark on this new chapter in my professional life, I thought I’d share three reflections, inspired by those notes I have received over the years. What follows is the first of these reflections.

“Little Boxes”

  • A note from Josh’s mother:  “You sparked Josh’s interest in government and policy, which surprised all of us (Josh included).” 
  • And from Josh himself:  “Three years is a long journey, and you’ve definitely changed my path. . . . For all that you have taught me, class-related and not, thank you.”

When I used to teach U.S. History, I tried to incorporate music into my classes as much as possible. We looked at how the music and lyrics of particular eras captured different ideas, groups, and movements, and what those songs said about the society in which they were crafted.

One of my favorites to play for the students was the 1962 folk song “Little Boxes,” by Malvina Reynolds. This song is a pretty biting commentary on conformity and on how we had created a series of “little boxes” into which we placed and sorted our children, leading to neat and predictable adult lives, in neat and predictable suburban homes, which are “all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”

As we made our way through the song, many students came to the realization that 60 years later, this song still applied to their lives. Forces from across society were seeking to put them in boxes as early as possible, slapping on labels and packaging them for a particular vision of life. For my high school students at a competitive independent school, this generally centered around college plans, but I would often hear parents and even educators refer to students barely out of kindergarten as “a STEM kid,” “not a good writer,” or some other such moniker. 

Whatever the label, it connoted a group with a defined set of expectations, talents, and acceptable paths through life. But not only is this way of looking at kids (and adults!) constraining for those who are labeled, it implies that our students, and our entire society, are merely a collection of paint-by-numbers monoliths. And if all we as educators need to do is design programs for a discrete set of patterns, it’s no wonder why even the top schools out there today often feel like such a grind for everyone involved, and why, pandemic aside, we have such trouble recruiting and retaining enthusiastic faculty.

Doing this can actively harm our students as well, as this sort of scripted existence can contribute to the epidemic of anxiety and depression on many campuses today. A recent op-ed in the New York Times explicitly linked this trend to a diminished focus on teaching students the “art of choosing”; without the tools to handle the freedom that college and beyond provides, things became overwhelming. 

I recently wrote a piece for EXPLO Elevate about how schools, in order to tackle major challenges in our paths, have to recognize the massive objects — the college process, standardized testing, etc. — that are distorting our view of what is important, and what the options are in front of us. A manifestation of this distortion is the increasing focus on the need for students to “specialize,” and to craft a carefully curated narrative in order to succeed.

But of the great innovators throughout history, few had set themselves on a clear path starting in middle school, and most had all sorts of moments in both their educational and professional lives that were not scripted. Embracing the infinite variety that makes up our educational universe will allow us to help our students rediscover some of the optimism, joy, and exploration of the unknown that has always been the catalyst for breakthroughs big and small. 

So what can we do?

  • Recognize that a critical part of education is the process of learning to choose, and this includes learning how to course-correct when choices don’t yield expected results. Our students can’t do that if their educational journey is scripted from the start.
  • Resist the push to see education as transactional. If we constantly communicate that one’s education is only about “what’s next,” we’ll end up with a lot of young adults who have no sense of any sort of deeper purpose. Our current state of immense political polarization and tribalism reflects the fruits of such a transactional approach to areas of life that should have much deeper roots.
  • Actively cultivate and push students toward opportunities for enrichment that are disconnected from traditional means of assessment, and show that we (parents, educators, and others in positions of guidance and mentorship) value those as critical parts of education.

These are fundamental principles that must be infused throughout our schools: curricula, teacher training, guidance/student life systems, etc. 

Over the years, this approach to educating kids has always been what has brought me back to EXPLO, as there is something invigorating about the ability to think about education in a space free from both the pressures and labels inherent in traditional school settings. I still recall my time as a student at EXPLO myself in the early 1990s as a transformative one — not because of anything in particular that I learned, but because I remember that feeling of the freedom to explore who I was both as a student and as a person. Returning to the rigid tracks of traditional school was a tough transition.

This summer on our EXPLO Senior campus at Sarah Lawrence College, an enthusiastic 13-year-old told our Director of Teaching and Learning that because of her experience in our International Law & Diplomacy class, she thinks she now wants to be a diplomat. Her excitement at making this discovery was palpable. When we told the instructor of the course — a college student with no specific plans (yet!) to be an educator — his eyes lit up.

Two lives infused with new possibilities in the course of a single summer — that is what we should all be seeking to cultivate.

Back to those notes from Josh and his parents: Who knows if Josh will guide us all through our current political mess, navigate the next pandemic, or devise a plan to help his coastal town combat climate change? But if we had all played into the “STEM kid” trope, who knows what we might have missed out on?