Paula, Fellow @ The Donnell-Kay Foundation, CO
Paula is a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, where she supports a variety of projects. Paula used to work with sled dogs, in outdoor education, and at The Logan School for Creative Learning. She is always trying to find ways to connect her background in philosophy and education to real life and education work. She is a Catalyst and was interviewed by RE-ENVISIONED co-founder, Nicole.
Think about a child in your life that you care deeply about. Once you've picked a child, will you tell me a little bit about them and what makes them special.
There’s a girl who I taught from 2011-2013 when she was in middle school. Now she’s a senior in high school. I taught her in middle school at the Logan School, and I think I'm thinking of her partly because we’ve been in contact recently. We've kept in touch--as a student, she and I formed a really tight bond. We got along well, we had a similar sense of humor. I felt like she was a great student--not just a "she did her work on time" kind of thing--but, she was a great student in that she cared very deeply about what she was doing. That was really clear. She was the type of person or student who you want to have in your class: Asks questions, challenges you, cares about the things that she's working on.
At Logan, the kids can study whatever they want. And she studied a few different things. She studied locks and dams, and other things, but she also studied fracking. It was starting to be a term that people heard in the news, and she was really curious about it. She ended up totally going down the rabbit hole, which was kind of great. She went on a bunch of field trips, she went to meet with anti-fracking activists, but she also went and talked to people who worked in oil and gas who are doing the fracking themselves, and who are big proponents of it. And through all of that work, she formed her own opinion, and she could have left it at that. She could have made some nice posters, made a cool diorama, and then been like, "Cool, I'm done with this. I did I good job." But, she became so invested in it that she went and spoke at the Capitol, she started an organization, a kids against fracking organization, and she’s continued to care about it. She spoke at the Climate March in New York a couple of years ago. She's talked to people at the EPA. I think she was inspiring to me as someone who takes the things she's learning and cares about and doesn't just say, "Oh, school ends at 3:10, so this ends at 3:10."
That's amazing. Well, speaking of her future...when you think about this student in her adult life or 30s, what is it that you would want for her? What do you think would make it a good life?
I think a lot of the things that I hope she has now: She has purpose--things that she cares about. Activities that she does that make her feel like she’s contributing to the world, or that she has a way to feel like she’s making the world a better place. Community--whether that means family, friends, a partner, etc.--I hope she always has a supportive community. The other thing, which is connected to both of those, is time: I hope she has time to do the things she wants to do, and spend time with the people that she has. What's the point of having community if you can't spend any time with them?
I feel like maybe I’m tip-toeing around---like, I don't want to say, "I hope at 30, she has a really good job," because that feels shallow and empty to me. It would be sort of naive. Obviously having time means I hope that she has a home, a place to live, food, and that those basic needs are met. And that probably comes with some form of income.
Could you tell me more about what you mean by "that could feel shallow and empty."
I don't think that having a good job makes one's life shallow or empty, of course. I just hope it's not the most important thing. It’s easy, being in education, a lot of the conversations are about “preparing kids for life,” which often gets whittled down to “preparing kids for jobs.” That's pretty small-minded, or short-sighted sometimes. I get it: As a 20-something myself, I know that making money is something I have to think about and do. Because otherwise, I'll be homeless. I just don’t want it to be the only guiding force, you know? The only thing to look forward to. Because life is so much more than a job. Some jobs are things you just go to during the day, and then you go home, which is fine if you have the other things that make your life feel rich and worthwhile. And some people's jobs are more of a way to make your passion into a profession, and that’s awesome too. I just don’t want to think about her life just in its economic terms. I think that happens too often. Does that make sense?
Yes, definitely. I think this plays into the next question that I'm going to ask: More broadly, are there things that you worry about in terms of her being able to reach that good life?
I’m not concerned about anything in specific for her, but I'm concerned about the general issues that exist in the world, like climate change, but also the challenges of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that we’ve all recently had to come head to head with. War and conflict in a global way. Sorry that's kind of dark and dooms-day.
So if we think about this good life that you had laid out--she has purpose, a community that cares about her, that she's supported, and that her basic needs are met--what do you think the role of school should be in helping her achieve that good life?
In its most basic form, school is where children between the ages of five and twenty-two (give or take) spend a sizable chunk of their waking lives. It’s where we learn how to interact with one another, and discover who we are. It’s part of life as well, you’re living in school and so if you want someone to learn to have a good life in the future, you should teach them how to have a good life in the present. Maybe right now I’m just stuck on the neoliberal lens of education: Kids are human capital, we gotta shape them, mold them, fill them with these skills, so that later on they can enter the workforce and be productive. I think that it's obviously so much more than that.
I think that school is where you learn to learn, which sounds really trite, but hopefully learn to really like learning. And not have your curiosity beaten out of you. Because the good life future I laid out for her is super vague. It’s so general and could be filled with any number of details. If schools can help her to be adaptable and if she needs to pick up new skills, she'll be able to. If she goes down one path and ends up not wanting to go that way, she will know how to figure out what she really does want to do. I think school is probably about honing your judgment and encouraging you to be more and more inquisitive and curious because those are the things that will carry her into that good life. It’s something people have been saying over and over, but that love of learning--even if it sounds cliche--really, if we stop and think about it, it really is what I want her to get. Also, maybe the biggest challenge, not necessarily connected to the fears I have for her in the future, we all face this big challenge of learning how to live well together. And I hope that school can start to help her think about how we need to live well together.
Can you tell me more about living well together? How would schools do this?
So much of it sounds super basic, probably. I think so much of what's learned in school is not what’s being taught but how it's being taught. If I am a student, and the teacher is the conduit to the information, if I'm taught that "Oh, the only way your can figure that out is through this teacher." Then, the lesson I’m really learning aside from Calculus, is that "I can’t be an agent. I can’t do that myself." I think so much of the learning happens in between the lines. The messages that kids are getting about how much they matter, and I think a lot of it comes down to respect, listening, opening, kindness--those super basic things--and also an idea of collaboration as opposed to competition. If the challenge in climate change or hatred is how we can actually learn to live well together, then, one of the things I see a lot in schools that doesn't make me feel so good is the competition: Pitting people against themselves and saying, "One of you is going to be the valedictorian. Climb over everyone else to get there." That is a lesson in itself, it's a lesson about what’s important: You the individual doing well, performing well, showing off these gold stars you got, instead of us as a community doing well. I think I'm going to sound like a socialist. (both laugh)
Something else that you talked about was a love of learning. Could you tell me what that means to you?
Love of learning has become a stand-in for "real." Often, it has nothing standing behind it. Love of learning maybe is the same as curiosity. If learning is what we are constantly doing in our lives, independent of if we are in school, out of school, 100 years old, then love of learning is really just love of living. Which is something I would want for all of us.
That's beautiful. If that's the ideal role of school--developing curiosity, living well together--do you think schools are currently doing this? Some kids, all kids?
Probably, it depends. Yes and no. The examples that I’ve described in this student’s learning are in an educational setting in which the focus is on educating the child as a whole person, not just a brain or a body. And, it’s about really empowering the child to take charge. Think about how much the sheer fact of saying to a child, “Yeah, I care enough about what you think that I'm going to let you pick the topic for your entire year of learning.” That, before you even start the “learning,” is such a powerful message that: “You matter, you have power in shaping your world.” This student, and I hadn't thought about this until now, but she came to Logan in 7th grade, so she was only there for two years. And now she’s at a big public high school in Denver, the same one that I went to. In some ways, she had a Logan experience followed by a big public high school experience, and when I was a kid I went to Logan and then I went to the same big public high school. I haven’t experienced all schools as a student, I’ve seen a few more as a teacher, or through friends, etc, but obviously I can’t speak in an informed way about all schools.
But I think a lot of schools aren’t empowering children, they’re sort of beating the joy and curiosity out of students and are reinforcing these messages of competition and preparing for the future. Having so much focus on the future that your present life--you're in the wings right now. And that, I find pretty horrifying. It's sort of morbid, but I’ve had enough friends of friends, or friends of relatives, who die before their 25. So if you're saying what her life is going to be like when she's 30--some people aren’t going to get to 30, and they should have a good life in the meantime.
John Dewey talks about spending the present preparing for the future--it negates itself! If the goal is that when you're 30 to have passion, purpose, and to know who you are--if you’ve never practiced doing that, how are you going to magically be able to do it? For myself, when I got to a big public high school, I found out what I needed to do to get an “A” and figured out how to play this game. Not how to game the system necessarily.
Why do you think schools are this way?
That's such a good question, if only we knew. One small sliver of it is that we, as a society or as people, are obsessed with measurement. We want to know that we’re getting our money’s worth. We want to know that my kid's going to be okay. Which, if you think about it, is a little bit crazy: We can’t know those things. There are predictors, sure, but we never know for certain.
When you think about public education, there are a bunch of tax dollars invested in this, so there's a public interest and we want to know that our money is going towards something. I think unfortunately, the aims have become the measurable things, not because they are the right things, but because they are the things we can measure and say, "Look these numbers got higher, stayed the same, or lowered." That certainly isn’t all of it.
I think a lot of the decisions that are made in education are made out of fear. If you think back to A Nation at Risk, creating this anxiety. It’s no surprise that all schools don’t look like Logan, because in some ways it’s a leap of faith. Parents at Logan say, "It’s such a leap of faith sending my kid here." In some ways it is: They're not going to get a report card. Kids don’t get grades. There are a bunch of conversations and conferences within the year, but because each student is one of twenty in a classroom of two teachers, I know in and out how she’s doing and what she's doing. But, I’m never going to send you a report card that says “this student is an A, or that one is a B.” There's that anxiety that Logan parents feel: It's a leap of faith because I'm not going to get a report card.
But I feel like, jeez, isn’t it also a leap of faith if you send your child to a more traditional school, in which the risk there is that they might learn to hate learning? That they don't get to do things they care about, they just do things that they're asked to do? That they become really good unquestioning rule followers who think of themselves as human capital? That seems scarier to me.
Why do you think we have schools as a society?
I don’t feel like enough of a historical expert to really expound on things. But, I think part of it very simply is that we've decided that adults work from 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday: What are the kids going to do? Not to say that teaching is babysitting by any stretch of the imagination, but kids have to be some place. Another part of traditional education was to get people ready for jobs, mostly in factories: Bells, 45-minute class periods, all that was teaching children to be good workers. To follow instructions well and jump when asked to.
In a broader sense, it’s how we welcome children into our world. It’s how we give them context for the world that they exist in. They’re going to be the next adults, so it’s showing them: “Welcome to this institution called life that we have, and here's how it came to be and here are some of things that some number of us deemed are important for you to know.” In some ways, it is important to have common knowledge, experiences, and ideas--that’s part of culture. It’s how to introduce students to our culture, which is strange because so many schools have so many different cultures.
Can you tell me about an empowering educational experience?
If an experience can last 9 years, then going to Logan was an empowering learning experience. To be told over and over again, “What you care about matters,” was a really empowering message. To talk about a much more minute example, which might not come off as an educational experience: we went on a lot of field trips at Logan and unit field trips. So, if you're studying eagles maybe you go to the raptor center or the mountains. There was a year that I was studying forensic science and I had gone on a bunch of field trips for that unit. Some other students were going on a field trip to the Olympic Training Center. And, because my teacher knew that I played soccer and cared about it a lot, and was really interested in sports. She pulled me aside that morning to see how I was doing on work, which I was pretty on top of and not really behind. So she said, “Do you want to go to the Olympic training Center with these other kids? I know it's not your unit but it seems like something you would be interested in.” So, I got to go on this field trip.
We were there for a couple of hours, and to be honest I don't remember much of it now. But, that respect and being treated like an equal--that was empowering in some way too. Even though it wasn't something that I sought out. Maybe it just showed me what my teacher valued, which was more that I learned something interesting to me and found something fulfilling and inspiring, and that was more important to her than me staying in the classroom and working on my math homework. Or doing some edits on an essay that I had written, which is important too. But, that she cared very much about me as a person.
I'll tell you one more small story. In college, I took a sustainable design class. It was all about eco-cities and how to design the most sustainable eco-city. It was pretty interdisciplinary and there were people from all different majors in it. The final project was, of course, to design an eco-city. In the class, we talked all about greenways, car-free cities, pedestrian areas, nature spaces, solar panels, etc. I was feeling like none of that would stick if the people--what is a city if not it’s people?
So, I came to the idea that it was more important to design sustainable people than to design sustainable structures. Because if you cultivate a care about sustainability in the environment in people, then they'll do that. If you put solar panels of everybody’s head, they could still live unsustainable lives. So, I designed a series of field trips for kids, and my idea was that they'll start to understand their world and nature in this bigger way. And this will cultivate in them a care for the environment, which will translate into the creation of a very sustainable eco-city.
I felt empowered because I was given the freedom of an open-ended assignment, sure. But, that to me seems like a proof point that you can do this, you can change it up a little bit. My teachers in that class were like, "Where's your design for the city?" so I didn't get as high of a grade on it. But, I felt great about it and didn’t really care.
I see society as--there are big flaws. And if education is at least partly how people become who they are, then who they are has a potentially gigantic effect on society. So, that’s why I think it’s important.
How does your current work fit into the conversation we've been having?
These are the things that I think about all the time. In my idealistic world, I don't want there to be a time when these are on or off. I want it to be what I'm thinking about. But, I’m having a hard time finding space for these conversations in the work that I’m doing, not because of DK, but just because--I took this fellowship partly because being a teacher or in academia especially, I was able to ruminate on these things all day long but it felt like we never did anything. So, I came here because I felt like this is a place where people are doing things and I wanted to be a part of that.
But it's hard, because like the closer you get to the actual thing where things are being done or tinkered with, like the closer you get to the petri dish, or the auto body shop, there are already a set of tools in that room and this understood goal. So, it’s hard to change the conversation in a really big way when we’re all already marching towards higher test scores or “improved academic outcomes.” It can be hard to jostle that stuff. That’s the tension I’m feeling. The places where you can have those conversations--about love of learning, empowerment, getting rid of grades--are actually really far away from the room where stuff is happening. At first, I thought that was a lack of communication and the siloing of institutions, but now I’m a little more afraid that once you’re doing stuff it’s hard to stop and start over.
Anything else that you wanted to talk about or mention?
One of the first questions you asked is what a good life looks like for this student when she's 30. And I said a bunch of nice things, but really, maybe my answer to that question is that only she can answer that question. One of the challenges that education faces is that we have this one view of success: money, stable job, the "American Dream" kind of idea. But I really want her to be doing something that she's passionate about, so if that means owning a goat farm or living in the mountains by herself, then that's fine. I think people should be able to determine their own success, because really she is the only person who can determine if she feels successful or not. I just wanted to add that caveat.
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