Sometimes you just have to get far enough away, and far enough removed from your usual context, to really appreciate what you've left behind. I'm certainly a fair distance away from Prairie Creek right now and my experience working with the teachers of Lumbini Academy in Yangon, Myanmar was a striking experience in so many ways. The weather has been startlingly different, yet, with the polar vortex in mind, I've been advised by folks back home not to bring up that topic!
By Myanmar government and monastic school standards, I suspect that Lumbini Academy would be considered well-resourced. The parents of children pay a modest fee for their children's attendance at the school. Still, in my visits to the classrooms it was clear that the facilities and equipment were very simple. In one fifth grade classroom I stopped in, the children struggled to track down a map with which I could show them where Minnesota was. Eventually one of the children found a tiny globe which just about served our purpose.
Most classrooms were fairly traditional with children seated in rows. There was a special education services area at one end of the building, but nothing like the very well resourced spaces that support children with disabilities at Prairie Creek. I saw no sign of a team of paraprofessionals, or service providers, available to meet children's needs. The art room, music room and library were also sparsely furnished compared to our excellent specialist spaces at Prairie Creek.
I reflected a lot on the incredible building and grounds we have at Prairie Creek while in Myanmar. Where we have the Field of Dreams soccer field, the Lumbini children play their football (note correct terminology is used in Myanmar) on a patch of concrete next to where the buses are parked. Still, it is just as much fun playing with the Lumbini kids as it is kicking it around with our children at recess! As I taught my workshops, I was almost embarrassed to share the riches of experience that our children enjoy and the incredible community support we receive.
Despite these differences, as my time with the Lumbini teachers progressed I also became increasingly aware of school characteristics that both Lumbini and Prairie Creek were rich in. The quality of faculty and staff, and the relationships they create with children in a dynamic learning environment are most important in both contexts. The staff in both schools work extremely hard. I've been trying to keep up with teachers emails, blogs and newsletters while I have been gone. It's hard! Stepping away, I'm now astonished at just how much goes on in our small school in just two weeks. I've missed culminating events galore, not to mention what was by all reports a terrific Special Persons' day. All of this takes a teacher's dedication to the children -- that I also witnessed at Lumbini. My last workshop finished an hour early so that a group of teachers had some extra time to get ready to leave for a three day field trip with children. At the end of a long day of teaching, they were cheerfully preparing yet another wonderful experience for the children.
Likewise, the Lumbini teachers shared a complete commitment to professional development with the Prairie Creek staff. My workshops were from 3pm - 5pm, each session after a day of teaching for the faculty. While I've been gone, I've noticed more just how often the Prairie Creek faculty share links and resources about educational ideas and topics. The same curiosity and passion to stay alert to new ideas was clearly part of the Lumbini faculty mindset. Part of my challenge each day was to respond to and prepare sessions based off the teachers interests. Before presenting, I would hustle through my resources to plan sessions that met teacher questions: Can you show us what a narrative looks like? Habits of Mind - tell us more about that. Can we see an examples of teachers' blogs and newsletters? Culminating events...can you show us some examples?
It was great fun to work with such an enthusiastic team of educators. Their enthusiasm for progressive education ideas was
energizing and, at times, quite touching. During one of the tea breaks (a most excellent mid-session staple of the Lumbini workshop) one of the teachers told me, in her broken English, that..."if John Dewey could hear about your progressive education school he would be crying." I was made to feel so welcome. At the last workshop, the teachers gifted me a traditional longyi. Naturally, I wore it to teach in, and we all practiced the habit of finding humor.
I will leave full of admiration for the Myanmar people that I met, and a profound hope that an ongoing connection can be forged with their school. At the same time, I'm looking forward to returning, with a deepened appreciation, to my Prairie Creek community in the new year. Happy holidays to all of you.
We cannot decide the future for the children...we can only provide the path.
- Ashin Sandar Wara - Headmaster of the Sanda Ra Ma Monastic School
The Outreach section of our school strategic plan has over-arching vision statement language: We have a rich tradition, and a vibrant present, that we will share with our school community, our region, and the broader progressive education movement. It continues...We will establish partnerships with educators to deepen our understanding of progressive education and best practices in the teaching of children.
When we were discussing our strategic goals three years ago, it perhaps wasn't at the absolute forefront of everyone's thinking that the director would so enthusiastically embrace the outreach concept by jetting off to talk with Myanmar teachers in the middle of December. As you might imagine, the staff have given me many reminders that the bitter Minnesota cold has arrived just as I desert them and head for warmer climes on the other side of the globe. Hey, I reply to them, I'm simply in strict adherence to the strategic plan and modeling that Responsible Risking-Taking habit we are always talking to the children about!
The opportunity for me to make this long-reach connection with other educators began with an innocuous email from Gary Wagenbach, a retired Carleton professor. In the summer of 2015 Gary hosted three of the teachers from Lumbini Academy school in Yangon. Since 2009, Gary has forged an enduring relationship and cultural exchange with the Myanmar educators. Their interest in inquiry-centered learning practices led him to contact me, and organize a tour of our school. During the course of their visit we had terrific conversations about the challenges and opportunities of pursuing innovative and inquired-based methods of education in each of our different education systems.
I was therefore very interested when Gary invited me to join him in Yangon this winter to present on some progressive education topics to the Lumbini faculty. After much logistical planning, I'm ready head out and share on a variety of topics that include: math, education reform, authentic assessment; projects and themes. I will arrive in Yangon prepared with a laptop full of power points, handouts, photos and videos. Most of all though, I'm excited for the exchange of ideas.
I believe that we educators think most deeply and reflectively about our pedagogy when challenged, or invited, to share it with an audience beyond our immediate community. This was a key understanding that informed the design of our strategic plan outreach component. This fall, we have been quite busy in our pursuit of this outreach goal. Last month's Imagine! Conference was a huge success. Our day was full of shares, questions, dialogue and discussions with a diverse group of over 100 educators. Last week, I spent half a day talking to a large group of student teachers about progressive education up at Bemidji State University. Earlier this week, a team of professors from Augsburg College education department toured our school and chatted to teachers with a view of utilizing Prairie Creek as a site for practicum and practice experience for student teachers.
These connections are in addition to our ongoing (and wonderful!) connections with educators at our local colleges and with our authorizer, Northfield Public Schools. As a public, progressive school that has now worked it's mission for over thirty years, we do have much to share and offer to other educators. Still, when we do reach out, we always get more than we give. Developing partners with other places keeps us fresh, challenges our biases, assumptions and ideas, and honors our own commitment to be lifelong learners.
I'm so excited to learn from the Myanmar teachers and administrators!
Thursday is Give to the Max Day. This has become a very important day on our fundraising calendar. Last year, donations added up to about $25,000 and were a key part of our success in meeting our fundraising goal.
The Outreach component of our school strategic plan puts forth the following commitment:
While eating my cereal this morning, I took a few moments to scan the Internet news. A headline caught my eye: 19th-Century School for Black Children Vandalized in Va. Reading on, the article described the vandalism of a historic black school just outside Washington, DC. There had been a graffiti attack on the Ashburn Colored School which was in the process of restoration back to it's original condition. As the school's name suggests, the Ashburn Colored School was served only African American children during the segregation years from early 1890s to the 1950s.
A group of teenage volunteers had been in the process of restoring this historic site for eighteen months. Eventually, the restored building will be a museum, illuminating a time in public school history when African American children endured an especially under-resourced and low quality educational experience. I looked up other news stories to learn more about the restoration project. One quoted a former pupil of the school, Louise Winzor Thomas, who shared that she and her siblings walked many miles to and from the school each day as school buses were not allowed to pick up black students. The defacing of the restored building with Nazi symbols and racist slogans has understandably devastated all those who have been working hard to restore the school.
One day last week I stopped by the Cranes' classroom. They were busily engaged their geology theme - working in small groups to examine rocks and record properties. I sat down alongside one of the groups and announced my presence with the question: "What are you working on boys and girls?" One of the second grade girls at the table looked up at me and very politely, but firmly, replied "please don't call us boys and girls, Simon!" I immediately knew what was she was referencing. Earlier that week I had been in the Cranes' classroom when Nancy led a discussion about gender-bias language.
Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.
This oft-quoted maxim is often credited to Einstein. The Quote Investigator webpage (and who am I to doubt their authority?) suggests instead that credit should be given to sociologist William Bruce Cameron.
Now that’s all straightened out, it is worth noting that is still a useful maxim in our context here at Prairie Creek. It neatly captures the progressive educator’s discomfort with the inadequacies of the accountability culture that has so influenced public education over the past few decades.
So how do we approach assessment in a child-centered, active learning program? In our evaluation of children’s progress, it is incumbent upon us to instead reflect on what we want to measure about our children, when and how are we going to do it and, perhaps most importantly…why?
These are big questions. At a Progressive Educators’ Institute that I attended a couple of years ago we tackled them from the tradition of a student centered, whole child perspective. We explored ideas of authentic assessment and what that looks like in our programs. Apparently, the Latin root of the word assessment, assidere, means “to sit beside.” At Prairie Creek, I think the assessment of the child is a continual process of getting to know the child. From day one of kindergarten, teachers are continually observing children from a social/emotional perspective. They are watching to see how children are integrating into new classrooms, how are friendships forming, what habits of mind are children already exhibit and which ones show opportunity for growth.
In these first weeks formative evaluation of children’s academic progress is also taking place. Teachers are carefully balancing the essential work of establishing classroom culture while also conducting individual literacy assessments with your children. These are one-to-one assessments where the teacher is literally “sitting beside” the child!
Some counting and measuring undoubtedly takes place to establish a baseline understanding of the child’s progress. Yet, the greater part of the teachers’ work centers on establishing deeper insights into each wonderfully complex and individual child. Their understanding of your children is further strengthened by conversation with you, the parents, at goal-setting conferences. Later in the year, these myriad observations, anecdotes and learning experiences will form the basis of the narratives teachers write later in the year.
I think the questions that we like to ask about authentic assessment are currently being pushed forward in other education circles. They are not just the concern of public progressive educators. It is now widely acknowledged that the No Child Left Behind law that drove the testing culture was a significantly flawed initiative. Aside from the residual damage it caused to key educational values such as play, creativity, innovation and a balanced liberal arts curriculum, its stated goals were simply unreasonable and unattainable. Minnesota, along with other states, is in the process of reassessing its evaluation structure under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
To be clear, we have never questioned the importance of our children becoming competent and confident mathematicians or capable and curious readers. These are important characteristics of the lifelong learner. We just don’t believe that a multiple choice assessment is the only, or the best way, to measure our progress in this work. The MCAs, administered in the spring, provide the state, our authorizer and parent community with some information – but at best, it is only a snapshot of a child's academic performance.
Public school educators and leaders are asking, with an increasingly strong voice, important questions about how much time children should be made to spend in standardized assessments, and, how useful or meaningful the data is. These are questions that we’ve posed at Prairie Creek since we became a public school in 2002 which, incidentally, was the same year No Child Left Behind came into law.
Authentic assessment, like many of the best things we do in schools, is an involved, reflective, time-consuming process that must include the voice of children, parents and teachers alike. Thank you for partnering with us in this work.