Thinking with our Feet: The Pale Blue Classroom

I go to school on my days off.

I don’t mean that I’m a workaholic who sneaks into school on weekends to put the finishing touches on a lesson. I literally take vacations to classrooms.

Today I’m in California. I woke up at 3:45 am in Baltimore, flew 6 hours, napped 4, and rather than sleeping slumped in a chair until my friend could pick me up from the airport, I took three trains and a connector shuttle to Stanford…and then I creeped on the, Stanford’s Institute of Design where anyone on campus can take classes with a cross-pollination of people from all fields.

More confessions? I’m a serial school stalker.

I take personal days to shadow colleagues in nearby school districts; I take students on train trips during my Spring Break. I’ve traveled to Kenya to teach in one room school houses, Brazil to hangout with teachers doing distance learning in the Amazon, and China to chill with English Language Learners and party member’s wives.

Judge me. Go ahead. Label me a nerd, a compulsive do-gooder, a workaholic. The truth is, this is not an impulse to “save” anyone, nor is it compulsion towards self-sacrifice.

It doesn’t matter where I am or if I’m on the clock…I want to be in school. It’s where I feel connected, alive, at peace. It’s where I get a sense of how the story of humanity will unfold and spiral towards meaning.

How is it that I feel the most at ease in spaces that, for so many, cause anxiety, claustrophobia, and resentment? And more importantly, how could my feelings of tranquility and transcendence be normative for ALL learners?

Yoga at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center
Yoga at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center

A few thoughts…

1) Comparative Education is inherently fascinating. It wasn’t until graduate school I was able to examine case studies of pedagogy around the world. Studying how country, culture, and circumstance shape concepts of learning not only helps us understand the world better, it helps us be more reflective on the advantages and disadvantages of our native schooling systems.

For students…
This wouldn’t require a passport, maybe just a bus ride one township or county away. How is rural learning different than urban learning? How does the sense of community impact a student’s ability to learn or belief in education’s importance? What do they do better than us? What might we have to teach them?

Seining for critters in the Chesapeake.
Seining for critters in the Chesapeake.

2) Personalized learning plans should align with our natural passions. We should be taught how to follow the white rabbit towards our inherent human curiosities. State curriculums and graduation requirements are unfortunately becoming more standardized, not less, with even fewer options and pathways to individualized learning.

For students…
Teachers can tap into the growing literature on inquiry and project based learning to start. Move students through iterations of inquiry, to skill acquisition, to meaningful local action. This is how we can help students understand their own agency in the learning process. We need to teach them how to make us (the teachers) obsolete.

3) We learn when we walk. Reacquainting mind with body through actual exploration of space helps us make connections we would have otherwise missed. Man cannot live in his pre-frontal cortex alone. We have to sometimes think with our feet.

For students…
This could be a five minute micro trip outside after learning a particularly intense concept. Or, it could be a homework assignment that asks them to observe in their local environment the theme or idea you’ve covered in class. We must ask ourselves why an elementary school classroom and why 5 year old student routines look so similar to that of a senior high student. Why do we trust teenagers less than toddlers and insist upon confining them in playpens only different in their scale? We ought to be taking upperclassmen into the world, making the classroom the occasional point of return and reflection.

The most vibrant learning experiences don’t happen when we’re sitting. Epiphany comes as we move through this, our pale blue dot, in the playpen of the cosmos. If our students aren’t desperate to journey into our educational spaces, it must be because learning isn’t actually happening there.

Happy walking, learning…and creeping.


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