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 d.school, 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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Many people have a so called “bucket list” of places they’d like to travel before they die. I am no different. But for me, I’ve come to realize I’m drawn to places I want to “meet.” Places that can be my teachers. Places that will confuse as much as enlighten me.
From the time I was young, I always remember being drawn to the continent of Africa. Who can explain these seemingly random affinities? I can’t, but I have come to trust them.
I went to Kenya not with answers. I went with questions. I went expecting to be discomforted by the disparities I encountered. I went hoping to be divested of Western “solutions” related to aide, Millenium Development Goals, and the like.
I ended up spending most of my “free” time in Kibera a slum, not out of a sense of charity, but because that’s where the life was, the youth were. It’s where I could witness the rich civil society unfolding, refolding, transforming in the hands of the youth. It’s where I could listen to their stories of creative and peaceful rebellion. It’s where I found the most friendship, partnership, and hope.
If ever I feel false or out of touch with myself, if ever I feel too ambitious and distrusting of my motives, it is youth that bring me back. Their raw and often accidental authenticity help me not to lose my own. The youth are my truth.
I may make it to those countries that I hope will be my teachers, but even if I don’t, I know that I will always learn in the presence of youth, Kenyan or otherwise.
Follow the links above to read more stories of youth civil society and self advocacy in Kenya.
The Advocacy Project is an organization that seeks to support local grassroots human rights endeavors around the world. They do this by sponsoring “Peace Fellows” who for a short time work as interns for AVP’s international partner organizations. The goals of these interns depend on the communities they are supporting, but primarily they are meant to help the organization scale up and raise the visibility of the work the local members are already doing.
I became an Peace Fellow in the summer between my two years of graduate work in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. The Advocacy Project model appealed to me because it seemed to avoid the problematic patterns all too common in “Aide” from the “West” to “Less developed countries.”
The AP avoided the “patron recipient” patterns by…
Acknowledging that local communities themselves are the most likely to accurately identify their challenges and come up with specifically appropriate solutions.
Focusing on visibility with the understanding that if an idea is a good one, it will have resonance once it can be heard above the din. This visibility needs to be both local (in order to create stakeholder buy-in) and global (in order to increase the possibility of international funding).
Emphasizing self-advocacy by supporting communities as they reflect on the medium and messaging most appropriate for their specific situation. That may be a local newsletter or a internationally accessible website.
Training local experts. Whatever work a fellow does must be sustainable beyond the three to four months they are there. That means working side by side with a local partners and equipping them with the resources and skills they need to continue the work.
Utilizing graduate students (like myself) who have some skills and connections to offer, but so much more to learn about taking academic theory and testing it in the noisy, messy, authentic chaos of the real world.
The theories of “post-development” show that we are beginning to understand development will not, cannot, should not look the same the world over, that we all have something to teach one another about healthy, thriving communities.
That “charitable giving” must be a practice in reciprocity as we consider what we have to offer and what we can receive from community partnership networks throughout our global society.
Over the next week, I will repost and reflect on blogs I wrote during this time. I am grateful to all my Kenyan teachers and friends, particularly the youth of Kibera. I have not forgotten your generosity, your stories, or your lessons: Kenya ni moja.