Maren, Educator, Mother, CA
Maren has been a learner and teacher in various contexts, working with both children and adults. She is currently learning about action-packed adventure stories and absurdist song mash-ups from her daughter, and about what it means to be a mentor and teacher from graduate students in education. Maren is part of our Education Leaders series (#edleader) due to her important work researching and utilizing dialogically-organized instruction. She lives in CA with her daughter and was interviewed by her friend, mentee, and biggest fan, Erin.
I’m first going to ask that you just reflect on a child you care about. I happen to know you have a child, and have also taught in school for a few years – so there’s no pressure either way.
Okay, I can go ahead: I’ll talk about my daughter. She’s six. She has an amazing sense of curiosity and focus. She focuses on very different things than I focus on, which is something I continue to learn from. I am struck by how many things she discovers and thinks about.
This morning, on the way down the stairs she was talking with me about – “I noticed this thing about when you do multiples of 12” and she was explaining it to me and it was something about the second digit, like 2x2 is four, and she was working it out in her head. And it wasn’t so much for me, I don’t have that same level of interest in numbers that she has, but I’m struck by how intensely she’ll take something and out of her own curiosity work through it and work around it in her head and ask question if there’s something she does not understand or wants to understand. She’ll continue to ask questions and probe and try to understand what’s going on. She takes such delight in things that are out there that she can pursue and manipulate and think about. It’s an exciting thing to see.
She’s someone who also really enjoys other people. She really enjoys hanging out with other people and understanding those people and getting their perspective on things. She’s very affectionate and very focused on love right now. I don’t know if this is because she’s 6, but she thinks a lot about love. She thinks about what it is and how important it is. She writes long pieces on love and has these very specific ideas about it. Like, “everyone has love…”
Oh I love that! It’s so sweet.
It says, “I like love, everyday you get more love, today you have more love than yesterday, tomorrow you have more than today”. So she has these various poems she writes about love and she thinks about it. It’s a very important thing for her to sort out and explore and think about what that means.
When you think of your daughter all grown up, let’s say she’s in her thirties – living her life – what is it you want for her? What would be a good life?
So, on a very basic level I want what I think a lot of people want - which is to say a basic sense of security. I mean that in both a material sense and an emotional sense. So I would like for her to have the sense that her world is a safe one and her needs are being met. And that she’s in an agentive position to address that – to make that happen. That’s at a basic level. And for her I particularly want her to have that sense of emotional security. A sense that the world is good and I belong in it and I have my place and I relish that place. That’s something that I would want for her.
I would want for her to have a sense that she has agency and control of her life – that she can make choices and that she’s not ruled by others. I want her to believe that her own agency and her own choices matter. And that she can do things. Right now she has all of these plans to invent things that will change the world. Like an airplane that is an entirely renewable energy airplane. Or a flying car that automatically finds parking spaces. Things like that.
When she’s 30 or 60 or whenever, I want her to be in a position to think about the things that matter to her and feel like she is in a position where she can make changes and do things in order to change the world she’s in in ways she’d like to change it.
I would like all of that for her. I would like for her to be happy in whatever she’s doing and secure in some way around who she is. And I would like for her to think of herself within a community – see herself as connected. Ideally, she has a community or a circle of people with whom she connects and for whom she’s important. And, if one thinks about us all being connected, to really understand herself as a part of that and to have that be a source of comfort to her.
So as you think about this life – the sense of security, the continued curiosity, and agency, and having this community and circle of people – what do you think is the role of schools or schooling in getting her there?
So, I think ideally school should be a place where children have the opportunity for agency in a profound and meaningful way from the very beginning. I think schools should provide children with meaningful choices and they should provide children with the opportunity for intellectual discovery so that curiosity is fostered.
I worry a little bit about the way – I realize this isn’t what you asked – about the way the current school system is structured, because I see it in some senses as a way of stripping away all of the things that make her thinking hers.
And to make sure that when she thinks about math that she thinks about it in these very particular ways that have been pre-defined. The fact that she is thinking about and making discoveries about twelve and multiples of twelve, it doesn’t fit in that pattern. I would like for her to have a school where that is celebrated, fostered, and enabled – not just for her but for all kids.
I think every child has things that they’re passionate about and has things they’re curious about and needs opportunities to have those ideas heard, have those ideas valued. To have those ideas and engage with other people’s ideas. I think that if school could provide those kinds of opportunities that would be incredibly meaningful.
Providing an environment where children have the opportunity to truly connect with each other - where schools pay as much attention to the social dimensions of who they are as they do to the academic dimensions – the social-emotional dimensions. Not with the aim of reducing diversity or reducing difference but by creating the environment in which different kinds of differences converge and respect one another and engage with one another. I think that would be so powerful – it would really be powerful to have a school where that’s possible – or a school system.
You started touching on this a little bit in your answer to that question, but do you think schools will be this for your child and for all children?
I don’t think that schools are very good at doing this for anyone right now, in general. There are exceptions, there are individual schools and certainly individual teachers who are committed to that, but systemically we have a system that was put into place to reproduce and not to allow children to flourish for who they are. I think that some children will find a way to make or express who they are despite that – but I think a lot of children won’t. And that makes me sad.
It makes me sad when I see opportunities [for this to happen and it doesn’t]. For instance, when I walk into a classroom and I see children who are using the whiteboard (the little whiteboard on their lap) and they aren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing so it gets erased – and literally erased: “you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be so we’re going to erase this”. This is not what education should be.
It’s not about a problem with individual teachers; I think there’s a systemic issue with a focus on academics being something that one transmits and a very hierarchical sense of what knowledge and learning is. And therefore what makes children who they are is not really heard and not really attended to or nurtured.
I was in a meeting with a group of teachers and it was very interesting to hear what was and what was not attended to in terms of the conversation. The attention to who is this child, what does this child do – for example as they’re reading a story – doesn’t really appear. What appears is what level is the child reading at. And to me that’s the wrong way of thinking about children and the wrong way of thinking about the complexity of who they are.
When I think about my daughter and her reading I think, “wow, she’s started five or six different books at once!” I would never do that because I want to start one and finish it. I would never pick one up and then not touch it again for a couple of weeks as I start others. But it’s an interesting thing that makes her who she is as a reader. And I think of the kinds of things she stops and attends to – she’ll stop and tell me about something she finds exciting and what’s happening in this particular spot. And that’s one of the things I’ve noticed about her and the kinds of things that she may or may not do.
Changing the conversation from how much does a child know to who is the child and how does the child know feels to me like it would move us much closer to a world in which a child’s curiosity and passions are respected. If we want to feel secure, we want to be known and seen, not for how much we know but for who we are and what we do.
One of the things that concerns me is that she’ll come home and say things like, “Didn’t I get a good report card? Didn’t I do well on my report card.” And as a parent I look at it and say that’s not what’s important to me – I don’t want you to think about learning like it’s represented by a number. Not because I don’t want her to do well, but because I want her to think about who she is as a reader and not have it be contingent on that. Because someday she’ll be in a situation that the comparison is going to fail and if her value and self worth depends on the sense of how much she can do…
Even if it will work out for her it’s still not going to work for a lot of kids. It’s not going to work for most kids – because there’s always going to be kids on that “bell curve” who fall on the below-average side of things – so that system is never going to work for most kids. So if we want to shift that conversation so everyone feels that sense of security and agency, then it can’t be reserved for the kids who seem to do well in the system we’ve got. Because it’s really not fair to the many ways in which kids can do really remarkable things as thinkers and as readers in a context where they are recognized for how they do them rather than what level they’re at.
You touched a little bit on what you think education should be…but I wanted to see if you could say a bit more. You said, “the whiteboard got erased and that’s not the way education should be” – could you say more about that?
In that particular moment? The moment of teaching is incredibly complex and it’s hard when you have a room with lots of people and you’re trying to navigate lots of different needs. But I think that every child should be heard. Every child should be respected. And I think that there are a lot of ways one can communicate that.
One way is simply by putting some things on the back burner initially and really focusing on connection. So the kid is standing in line and he comes up to the teacher and says, “I’ve got a band-aid on my knee!” And rather than saying, “that’s nice honey”, which is what I’ve heard, you say, “oh, tell me about that – say more! Let me see!” I realize you can’t do it in every moment for every child because there are too many kids and too many moments – but you can do it some of the time for all of the kids. And you should be doing it most for the children who are most difficult to understand.
If there’s a kid you really don’t get where they’re coming from. If there’s a kid who’s supposed to be writing out the sounds of words on the whiteboard and the kid is instead drawing a picture. You could say, “That’s really interesting – tell me about your picture. You know, I’m going to set this aside right now because I’d really like you to be able to finish it later and then I’d like to hear about it.” There are ways of making sure that the stories – the things that children want to communicate about who they are – are valued and heard – that give them a sense of “I belong here – I matter to this person – I matter to this community. My idea of who I am and what I bring to this room matters.”
It is so important to my daughter to have other people hear things – sometimes a lot of different times. It’s like, “okay, I’ve heard this a lot.” But she still needs to keep telling it and I have to remind myself that this is her story. She’s coming home from camp these days and she has these little science experiments and they’re very basic things and they function the same way every time – and I need to look at them like 30-40 times in the day. And so I do. And part of what I do when I do that is I don’t want it to be perfunctory – I want that to be, “I’m connecting with you on something that’s important to you. I’m engaging with you in this moment that’s important to you with this thing that’s important to you”. That’s a gift I think we should all give each other.
And it is a gift. Not as frequently given even amongst adults.
When you think about how you wish schools could be, and maybe they’re not doing this for all children, why do you think that is?
I think the biggest thing is fear. I think people are afraid of kids failing. I think they are afraid of difference and don’t understand it very well – so there is a fear there.
I’ve had conversations with people who are passionate about education and who believe that the best way to address or reach all kids is to make sure they reach certain standards or reach a particular benchmark that is universal and that is not contingent on who is this child and what does this child bring. I think there’s a real fear that somehow one will not serve kids well by listening to them. That’s the broader cultural fear.
Then, for individual teachers, it’s a frame. There’s a frame in which certain things matter – and this is driven by our culture where testing is extremely central to how schools are valued, how teachers are valued, how individual kids are valued. So there’s not- so you want your kids to do well on tests or in ways that reflect on tests. You consider your job as a teacher to be one of transmission and communication of content and so it becomes very difficult as a teacher to then change that and say, “I’m the learner here – I’m the one who needs to understand what’s going on for this child in front of me. I’m the one who needs to know who is there.” Shifting out of that frame is extremely difficult. I don’t think our system is set up very well for that. In fact, as a teacher you can be penalized for doing it – if you don’t have your standards written on the board or what you’re doing doesn’t match your standards on the board you can get in trouble.
We also don’t live in a culture where listening and attending to other people is entirely valued as an idea of success, or as valued as other kinds of things. It becomes a matter of “I think I do a good job as a teacher because my kids all finish first grade reading at grade level or getting x level on the diagnostic of reading” or whatever it is. So I define my success there rather than thinking about it in terms of “what is the relationship I have with these children, what do I know about who they are, how does the education system enable them to be who they are?”
I would like an education system in which we would have space for kids to develop at their own pace without being labeled, where kids could pursue and explore various different things, where they weren’t bound to desks and could be doing all kinds of other things, where they could have a democratic sense of the world around them - with a voice and a stake.
Those things are useful, but as long as teachers are in positions where that’s not what’s rewarded and that’s not what the job is advertised as, then those kinds of things are talked about as if they’re valuable only in the service of the academics rather than the other way around. I have nothing against kids learning to read – I think it’s a great thing – but why should that be elevated? Why should that be elevated over, “I want children to have an active sense where they feel they can do things.”? My daughter has been building these pill catapults. She builds them and shoots them off and comes up with these bizarre inventions. Nobody else really cares about those things, but they ought to be things people care about. I got a little off topic…
As you think about these different levels – when I asked you about what a good life is, you said “as everyone thinks”, but I’m curious if you think really think everyone agrees with you on the different levels?
I think the economic security piece is a piece that there’s probably a fair amount of agreement on. People tend to want that. I don’t know that everyone would articulate it – some people take it for granted so it isn’t something they’d talk about. But in general I think at a basic sense – I’m going to have a roof over my head, enough food to eat, whatever those things are - those are the things that I think there’s a lot of agreement there.
In terms of the other pieces I’m less sure. I’ve had conversations with other people whom I respect a great deal and I don’t think there’s full agreement. I think what ends up happening is that it’s not so much that people think of these things as irrelevant, but it’s a question of what is viewed as ultimately the most important. And I think a certain vision of what success is – success is doing well academically in a narrow band of ways and that will ultimately lead you to college, university, graduate school in some cases – and that will then make you successful and make you able to do what you’re supposed to do in life.
For many people then the fear gets in the way. So, when I have conversations about changing schooling or what would it take to re-imagine different pieces – I think there can be people who are incredibly well meaning but they’re scared. They think kids won’t learn unless we do things in a specific way and they define learning in a specific way and place so they don’t see that kids are learning every day. Kids have their ways of learning through play and exploration and what they have the chance to encounter. So I think that if we could get rid of the fear, I think there would be, or could be, more agreement. But I think that’s hard because I think the entire way the rhetoric is publicly right now is very focused on fear: “On the PISA the US is not number one and what can we do to make us number one?” It’s a flawed way of thinking about it. But people attend to it.