schools should be so much more

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Schools are for so much more than academics.

This past weekend, I had the chance to leave the city and get some fresh air and see three schools in Vermont while visiting friends and their new baby. Hooray for long weekends!

Though one of the school visits was really just to take in a Renaissance fair that was being held on that campus and another was to take in a harvest festival — and, frankly, when you’re in Vermont in mid-October, that’s what you do — I got the chance to spend a lot of time on the campus of the third. What struck me is how much more there is to a school than the teaching and learning. And I don’t mean that in a “hey, there’s community service, too!” or “we have an advisory program!” kind of way, but more in a “there’s so much about living that students need to learn” kind of way.

From signs that question ignorance to seeing cows in a campus barn that sees shifts of student workers; big school festivals had have a gigantic sense of community that went beyond any one school and its teachers, students, and parents; places to have fun and rest and be in nature; to tables and chairs that so seamlessly use the natural resources around them, everything that I saw had so much to do with non-academic teaching and learning. And because I wasn’t used to any of it, I feel like I learned so much in three days about how where we are can dramatically affect who we are and what/how we learn.

So we already know that schools need to be places of as much social and emotional learning as academic learning, but there has to be more to it than that. How do we teach kids about who, how, and what to be? (And, perhaps more personally relevant, how do you do that in the confines of a small school building… you know, one that doesn’t have a barn or a lake?)

Mindset over specifics

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I recently had to migrate my blog from Posterous to WordPress because the former is closing down shortly. It wasn’t the end of the world because I’ve done this before and I know what I’m doing, but I’m sure this is going to be a real pain for a lot of people who aren’t into blog backends and importers and plugins. These people stand to lose all the content and discussions that they have created on their blogs unless they can find an easy way to move on.

But this sort of stuff happens all the time. A year or two ago, I thought we had finally found a way to give all our students free and easy access to a powerful set of creative tools with Aviary‘s suite of web-based applications. I even remember a meeting that my department had at Aviary’s NYC headquarters that sold us on widespread use of their stuff. And then, with a simple change of corporate focus, those tools were gone. We worked around it, but it was a real disappointment from a group that we personally wanted to trust and continue working with.

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A lot of educators who put in conference proposals have the “thing” that they focus on for the current season of conferences, and this year mine was that technology isn’t about the stuff that we use but what we make of it. In short, it’s about creating flexible mindsets in the teachers and students that we work with so that they are never hung up on a specific tool that may or may not be available the next time they go to use it.

By focusing on what we want to make instead of how we’re going to make it, we allow for experimentation, curiosity, and serendipity. We let someone find a way to make something happen instead of giving them a recipe to follow. Ultimately, that process is more important than any “finished” product, especially if we allow for revisiting, revision, and continual improvement.

This isn’t just about blogging platforms and computer programs. I’d imagine that we can all try to do things in different ways. The next time you think you how you’re going to get something done, try something different. You might just find a better way to do it.