Sunday, April 15, 2012

Across the Street from Yale

Across the street from Yale’s ivy-league campus, there is a single story white brick building that was once an auto machinist storage area. The building sits in sharp contrast to the tall, austere stone structures that house the scholars of one of America’s most acclaimed institutions of higher education.  Still, the teaching and learning that happen day-by-day across the street from Yale may ultimately shape the landscape of America more profoundly than what emerges from Yale itself.  Each month, nearly six hundred boys and girls walk into the little building on the corner for free tutoring from the volunteers at New Haven Reads.  My daughter Audrey has worked there for the past year, coordinating tutors and scheduling sessions for the kids of the inner city.  Audrey works to find tutors willing to bring kids off of a waiting list which is hundreds of names long—a list of kids who want to learn to read but have no one to teach them, right across the street from Yale University.

 I have never really thought about knowledge as power, or education as the banner of an exclusive club.  I have always believed that anyone can learn, and that a free, high quality public education was both the right and responsibility of every American child.  Yet, many kids in New Haven are starved of literacy, just across the street from the students and professors at Yale.   That is difficult for me to reconcile. 

I find myself wondering about the food that we are feeding our own chubby school children, the scholars of Spirit Lake.  It seems that eating a steady diet of math and English, science, social studies and electives will feed the intellectual mind quite well—but there are other nutrients that I am realizing are just as important.  Spirit Lake boasts, “All kids will learn and become responsible citizens.”  How do we guarantee that?

The Universal Constructs of the Iowa Core are a beginning.  Identified by the Department of Education as essential to 21st century citizenry, these constructs may indeed be the missing ingredient in the American education recipe.  The Core plus the Constructs.  An ACT score and much more. We neglect at our great peril the critical thinking, complex communication, creativity and collaboration that will build essential bridges between those who have and those who haven’t in today’s educational landscape.  Perhaps we might even add another “c” word to our list:  compassion.

As Audrey and I walked away from New Haven Reads, we bumped into a Yale undergraduate student, who dedicates hours each week to the New Haven Reads program.   Audrey introduced me to Dan, saying “He tutors five kids each week.”   Dan corrected her, “Eight, actually.”

There is hope.  Great hope.

Monday, April 9, 2012

CBE and Dr. Suess

“You have brains in your head.  
You have feet in your shoes.  
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”  
Dr. Suess

We were biking into a (very) tough headwind on our way to Jackson, MN when we passed this sign by the side of the road.   We had enjoyed an incredible push with tailwind on Hwy 4 to the east, but now every mile north was an effort.   I realize that Dr. Suess might tell me, “Kari, you’ve got a head in your helmet and wheels on your bike.  You can point yourself any direction you like.”  True.  Still, a person has to be willing to take the headwind every once in awhile, just to get where she is going.  “All tail wind, all the time” doesn’t make for strong legs.

I wonder if Dr. Suess would be someone who would advocate for the personalized learning of Competency Based Education?  I am guessing the answer would be “Yes.”  His books are generally about individual empowerment, advocating for the voice of the tiny “Who” from “Who-ville”.  Suess doesn’t see kids as Thing One or Thing Two.   And in the Suessian world, even the Grinch is redeemable.

Whenever I get muddled or confused about the massive changes being proposed for the public school system, I can generally find my center by looking past the educational jargon.  From a simple “Suessian” perspective, I think Competency Based Education makes a lot of sense.

Our school is a place for kids of all sorts
We don’t batch them by age or by likely cohorts.

Each kid can learn, no matter how slow
And if they want to move faster we help them to grow.

The kids in our school will work harder than most
Each kid must learn-- no one can coast.

In our upside-down school, we hear teachers say,
“I didn’t speak a word, but I just listened all day.”

Kids will build things and make things and learn more than the Core
And learning won’t stop when they walk out the school door.

Anytime, any place and any pace, all day long--
No matter how, no matter who:  how can that be so wrong?

Dr. Suess is right:  we do have brains in our heads and feet in our shoes.  And at long last, educators are finally ready to steer in the direction kids choose.