Payatas

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What are the chances of sitting in a cafe in Payatas and sharing a table with a player from the Philippine women’s football national team who competed in Russia at the Street Child World Cup 2018 kicking off the recently concluded global FIFA shindig?  Well, the chances are quite considerable if the particular cafe you’re visiting is the one started by Roy Moore who began volunteering in a drop-in center in Payatas ten years ago.

A British lad who looks more like he could be part of a music band, Roy is the soccer coach to hundreds of children in Payatas.  He set up the Fairplay For All Foundation which runs the Payatas Sports Center and the Fairplay School and Cafe.  Kids in the football and school program get to eat the nutritious, vegetarian fare from the cafe ran by mothers from the neighborhood and in the future, Roy hopes to build dormitories for those who are constantly at risk from abuse and neglect.  Roy has made Payatas his home and lives in the community he has committed his life to.

Coming from America, Ken has never been to a place like Payatas, what used to be the biggest open dumpsite in the Philippines where people make a living out of garbage, where people thought they would lose their livelihood when it was declared closed because it was environmentally hazardous located near the La Mesa Dam, a huge water reservoir.  In the year 2000, hundreds of people died and thousands were left homeless when the mountain of trash collapsed.  Now, that mound is dressed up, spruced up in a pretty, attractive layer of greenery, erasing from the Google satellite map what was an embarrassment inadequately addressed by a nation.  Exploring on foot, on the fringes of the fancy green dress, one can still see the layers of garbage coyly peeking out.  There are a number of NGOs in the area dreaming of breaking the cycle of poverty, one of which is Fairplay.

Ken and I got connected to Fairplay through the RadEd Unconference last June where Mon Armena gave a talk about democratic education since he worked as a teacher at the Fairplay School.  No, democratic in this case does not refer to the corrupted term that it has become and the ludicrous sham it connotes when talking politics.  Wikipedia defines it as such:

Democratic education is an educational ideal in which democracy is both a goal and a method of instruction. It brings democratic values to education and can include self-determination within a community of equals, as well as such values as justice, respect and trust. Democratic education is often specifically emancipatory, with the students’ voices being equal to the teacher’s.

Since Ken Danford started a radical alternative to traditional school, the North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens and was visiting Manila for a week and a half, he might as well check out brother-sister-cousin schools and learning centers that widen the range of education options.  On a bright yellow wall at Fairplay School, these words are written: “Malaya tayong gawin ang gusto natin” (“We are free to do what we want”), but the rest of the sentence is covered by a white board but based on the words at the end, one can guess the second part: “Huwag lang tayo makadistorbo o makaabala sa iba.” (“As long as we don’t bother anyone else.”)

We went up to the second floor and saw a class conducted in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  You didn’t have the extreme crowd common in public schools and on one side, some kids were playing with educational games on computers.  Roy explained that even in this community, the kids can be categorized in three levels:  1) children whose families can afford to send them to public school and pay fees for uniforms, books, trips, etc.; 2) children whose families can send them to pubic school only if they have some subsidy for those expenses; and finally, 3) children who don’t have family with the ability or interest to send them anywhere. Fairplay Academy helps the children in the third group.

After visiting the school, Roy toured us, through narrow, muddy alleys, around the dump site where, despite the closure, the trash sorting industry continues in full force with separated garbage ending up in places like China.  He shows us the ingenuity of people making new mattresses out of discarded ones.

After the tour, I felt how superficial it is to relate the education alternative we were proposing to put up in Manila based on the North Star model to Roy’s democratic school in Payatas.  Yes, the learning models are similarly self-directed and libertarian in approach.  However, Fairplay Foundation is involved in programs of education, livelihood, nutrition and sports as a way of helping people out of poverty.   Roy hopes the kids whose lives are impacted by the programs, grow up and go out into the world but more importantly, come back to make a difference in their home, Payatas.

 

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Fairplay is a group of people who believe that when we provide opportunities to the poorest among us, they will flourish, excel, and innovate. We believe that it is unfair for a child’s opportunities and future to be determined by where they were born. We also believe it is possible to change that path and ultimately create a better world.

At Fairplay we look to solve the problem, to break the vicious cycle. In its place we create better problems and a new virtuous cycle. In the slums, this cannot be done in any single area alone. The best education is undermined by chronic malnourishment and a lack of access to livelihood, the best nourishment is undermined by a lack of livelihood and lack of quality education, and all areas of life intersect and undermine one another. This is what we mean by leveling the playing field. To turn a cycle from vicious to virtuous, we need every aspect of the field to be raised together.

This is why we run the Fairplay School, the Fairplay Café, and the Payatas Sports Center; as means towards leveling the playing field. We have shown remarkable progress and the kids we work with have shown that when given the opportunity they can become some of the best in the entire country at what they do. Whether that’s some of our girls being called up for the National Youth Football Team, affordable and healthy food from the Café, or completely illiterate teenagers learning to read and write and excel academically, there is much that can be accomplished together.

Who We Are: Fairplay’s Core Values

  • We love to Learn
  • We care
  • We improve: we make ourselves and our surroundings better than they were before

At Fairplay we love to learn. We love to explore new things and gain deeper knowledge where we already are. We care about the people around us and about our community. And we always want to improve the situation and make sure with everything we do things are better this week than they were last. We want to see progress.

Mission Statement

Our mission is to level the playing field. This means creating a safe environment for the families we work with, to develop holistic and sustainable projects in education, sports, and nutrition. Our mission is to empower the community by ensuring they are part of the decision-making process and organisation of each project, in order to identify the root cause of the problem and break the cycle of poverty for good.

Vision

Our vision is to build a community that is happy and strives to learn and develop. We seek to build innovative, creative, and long-term solutions through community dialogue and management in each of our projects. This means the students are part of running the Fairplay School, our local mothers run the Fairplay Café, and our older players are trained to coach younger age groups.

In short, through genuine community involvement and participation we can repair mindsets, build a loving community geared towards innovation and sustainable projects for the good of the whole.

Our Dream

As the Fairplay School, Payatas Sports Center, and our social business continue to grow we are looking at the possibility of expanding the three projects by locating them in the same place. The projects will combine to create the Fairplay Academy.

Here we can build dormitories for students at the Fairplay School so the hard-core cases are assured a safe and loving environment to live. During this time we can work with the families to help support them with mindset intervention and other psychological support and economic support through our social business so when the home has healed the student can return to them and stay in the Fairplay School as a day student. How long this takes will differ with every family.

The Fairplay Café and other social business will also have a larger and more permanent base and the futsal courts will move to the rooftop. The Fairplay Academy will be the final version of our work in Payatas and with a dedicated researcher proving the benefits, developments, and improving our work by showing which areas are working best and what needs to change, we can have a thriving learning community that can be scaled and replicated in other communities. At the Fairplay Academy we can therefore hold workshops, seminars, and more for other NGOs in the community and further afield for us all to learn from each other.

 

 

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11 Whirlwind Days

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What a ride!  Eleven days with Ken Danford in Manila!

The first day after arriving from the US was full enough with a trip to Gopala Learning Haven in Cavite to meet up with Laksmi followed by a meeting with the mentors.  The succeeding days were equally full with visits to the Metrobank Foundation in Makati, Blended Learning Center in Cubao, One School in Makati, Fairplay Academy & Cafe in Payatas, the future site of Sinag Art Cafe near Baclaran and Global Homeschool at Ayala 30th Mall, Pasig.  There was video taping with Atticus King and his dynamic team at Ignition, Manila Times interview by Edwin Sallan and the RX 93.1 Monster Radio interview made utterly fun and memorable by Raffy Reyes.  May dropped by for lunch bringing what became Ken’s favorite mango tart while Vince and Donna volunteered to help prepare for Ken’s big talk at Fully Booked.  The next day, Ken made a presentation at the Del Monte Corporation organized by TED Fellow Xavier Alpasa.  Because of Asha, we spontaneously hopped onto a taxi to catch the tail end of the Ignite Conference in Makati while the last day before Ken’s flight was reserved for Abot Tala’s Board of Trustees.  One more meeting was luckily scheduled without much advanced notice, rounding off a truly maximized, hectic but balanced week.

It amazed me how tireless Ken is in sharing stories and experiences about North Star and the Liberated Learners, while Manila’s gridlock traffic flabbergasted him.

 

Ken in Manila

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Months of planning, preparing and promoting and the day finally arrives — Ken lands in Manila!  Just on his second day on his first Asian trip and we’ve done quite a round of important meetings, from a dinner with advocates of alternative education to a visit to Gopala Learning Haven in Silang, Cavite including a muddy hike down a ravine, and on to a marathon discussion with potential full time and part time mentor-staff of Abot Tala.  A storm was declared but it veered away from our path so we were able to keep to the full itinerary, allowing us to make all the connections needed to get this dream of self-directed education for teens off the ground.

 

Kai

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Because Filipinos are everywhere, the chances that there’s a Filipino who has attended a Liberated Learner (LL) Center in America is quite high so how lucky are we that we get connected to and hear from Kai, a young Filipino who finished three years at the Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC).  PLC is one of the members of the LL network that was started by Joel Hammon as mentored by Ken Danford.

Instead of photos, Kai provided me with his artworks below and patiently answered questions from somebody eager to get first hand information.

How did you learn about PLC?

We were looking for a place to transfer to from the high school I was in that would give me more flexibility.

Why and how did you and your parents decide for you to attend PLC?

I was missing a lot of school, at least once a week, because of my Sensory Processing Disorder and other mental health issues. It was affecting my studies, limiting my social interaction, stressing me to no end… Most high schools weren’t going to accommodate me like they did in elementary and middle school. Having a more flexible schedule would work better for me as my condition is sporadic and unpredictable.

What was a typical day at PLC for you?

A typical day would have been settling in at around 9 am, going to classes, lunch and games (like ground-stop, board games, frisbee), more classes, and then we’d talk for a while or played games again. Classes were always fun and casual, and could be serious too. The volunteers who led the classes treated us like equals and we would have very good discussions. PLC closes at 3 pm, but we can come and go as we please depending on our schedules and what we wanted to do.

Can you describe the mentoring process that you had at PLC?  Who was your mentor and how would you describe your mentor?

Mentoring was basically me and them trying to figure out what I wanted to do, how to do it, and what I could do. I had Joel as my mentor my first year, Katy as my mentor for the second year, and Alison as my mentor for the last two years. My mentors would help me and push me to do things that were important to me and help me move forward. In my last year, Alison helped me with moving past PLC more.

What were some of the classes that you took at PLC that you found most helpful and useful?

I did photography for PLC for a few years; although, technically, it wasn’t a class. I had fun taking pictures and capturing moments in PLC. It also made me realize my talent for photography and Photoshop. They even use a lot of my photos on the site and for Facebook. Joel also asked me recently to spend a day at PLC to to take pictures because they needed newer images for the site.

How many years did you attend PLC and during those years, what were the things that you learned that you think you wouldn’t get if you didn’t go to PLC?

I attended PLC for about 3 and a half years. I learned that you don’t have to take the same old path as everyone else, that there are so many different options that no one talks about — not just in terms of school or work either. I also learned so many new skills, discovered my own talents, and learned to be more independent.

During your time at PLC, did you ever feel like you should’ve gone to a regular school? Why or why not?

I definitely did think “what if I just stayed in school,” and I still think about it as I’m moving forward. I don’t wish I had gone to school though. It’s more like wondering what would have gone differently. Would I still be interested in the same things? Would I be similar to how I am now? I think that I question myself more on taking the GED. I feel like I should have taken it sooner rather than waiting until now to do it. Overall, I know that I would have had a much harder time if I had stayed in school mentally and physically. So, I don’t wish I had gone through regular high school — even if I wonder about it and what would have been.

What is the next phase of your life after PLC?  How has PLC prepared you for it?

This question is great because I’m still really thinking about it. I thought I’d go into an art school for the longest time so I had been preparing myself for that; however, the more I prepared myself, the more I realized that going to art school wouldn’t benefit me as much as I would like nor would it be as fun as I thought it would be. I’m thinking about going into nursing or occupational therapy now though. I’m going to get my GED soon and then enroll in a university (or transfer to one from a community college here). If I was still going to an art school, PLC would have definitely prepared me more than enough for it; however, with last minute change of plans, I’m still prepared, just not quite enough in the side of proper academics needed for nursing and/or OT. PLC has prepared me by making me think and act more independently, figure out my skill-set, taught me how to move forward past PLC, and overall just help shape me into who I am now. Alison also said that she would still help me along the way if I need it, and I will probably talk to her about university choices. I’m thinking about doing health and pre-med at Hampshire College. PLC also taught me that I don’t have to rush into university right after and that I have time.

Did you have Filipino relatives who questioned you about PLC?  How would you explain PLC to them?

Nobody asked me about it, but they asked my parents. But, I would probably explain to them that it’s a group homeschooling in a facility with some adults who know what they’re doing helping out.

What did your parents think of PLC in the beginning and towards the end of your stay there? 

I think that my parents were very iffy and confused about me going to PLC at first, but they also understood that traditional school wasn’t going to help me. I had to do online school at the start, alongside PLC. Eventually, I stopped doing that because it only made me more anxious and I wasn’t really benefiting from it at all. Towards the end, however, it’s a bit weird. When I was still in PLC, I wasn’t going as frequently as I used to — because of my SPD and just that I didn’t have as many classes. They were confident about my interests and desire to go into the art field and let me take classes outside PLC to further benefit me. But I also wasn’t planning on going to college at all which they didn’t really like. My plan was to get the GED done, do freelance work, and then go work at a company or something. I’m not sure how they felt about me just sitting around waiting until I could go to a GED class and get it done. We were kind of just chill about it. I got sick of waiting though and changed up my plan so much. So, we pretty much were, and are, just playing it as things happen. My interest in art and creating is still very much there, and they still support it, but I think that they more heavily support me going to college and fulfilling the Filipino nurse stereotype!

What was the most difficult thing for you about your time at PLC?  What was the best thing?

The worst thing would have probably been me not taking it as seriously as I think I should have done — But that’s just hindsight. Otherwise, it would have been me not connecting with others and getting more involved. I regret not talking more and pushing myself more to do things. PLC teaches teens to be more independent and to step out of your comfort zone (in my opinion), and I didn’t take enough advantage of that. The best thing, on the other hand, would be tough to say… I guess the best thing would be that I learned so much about everything, became aware of so many things I didn’t know or understand before. Like, if I was in school, I would have been so sheltered and only concerned about homework and tests.

Do you think that something like PLC could exist in the Philippines?  Why or why not? 

I think that something like PLC could definitely exist and work well in the Philippines. I also think that it would be hard to get people to understand it fully and accept it because it’s so different. Traditional school is still so engrained into people’s minds and it would be hard to find people who will actively search for a different way. Once people learn about it, I think that it will become successful. I hope to see it work out well.

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Check out the Princeton Learning Cooperative:

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Dream Discoveries at the Unconference

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This took place on June 23 and I feel guilty not having blogged about it sooner but events took over such as moving houses, kids on summer break, bread and butter work deadlines ad infinitum but there’s no excuse because this UNCONFERENCE really rocked my world.  It’s just a matter of time before you find your own tribe and you feel at home with strangers who hold beliefs similar to yours — beliefs that many people find even stranger still.  Counter-culture, revolutionary, radical, ever questioning authority, fiercely independent.

This was the invitation and the venue was a restaurant-converted-garage in Mandaluyong put up by artists.   Conferences are usually in sanitized hotels and convention halls and you’re expected to dress up not down.  But here, I could come in rain-soaked rubber shoes and buy slippers to change in at the neighboring palengke and it’s all okay.

RaEd (Radical Education)
UNCONFERENCE ON COUNTERCULTURAL PRAXIS IN EDUCATION

The event is an open gathering for students, teachers, parents and individuals or group of people interested to explore alternative philosophy and practices in education/learning through solidarity of grassroots community in alternative-radical education. There will be 3 lessons for the opening of the event
Democratic School Education, Free School Movement, Unschooling, and Autonomous Spaces. Afterwards the event is open to Q&A, Open Mic, Voluntary Discussion/Presentation, Sharing of pedagogical concepts, tools and materials etc.

Compulsion – nonconsensual education – requires violence; it requires complete control over what students put into their brain, the people they are exposed to, the places they are authorized to be, and oftentimes, with free lunch programs, what food goes into their body.

Brian Huskie, A White Rose: A Soldier’s Story of Love, War, and School

In Solidarity with Jestoni Franco-Mayari Independent Academy/Kimmi Del Prado/Pheng Muncada- Solo Arts and Dine /Raymund Christopher Armena-Safehouse Info Shop/ Gnuhc De Vera-Etniko Bandido InfoShop/Taks-Safehouse Infoshop/Notra Block

Registration-5:00-5:30PM
Opening- 5:30-5:40
Countercultural Praxis Lessons
A.Democratic School 5:40-6:00
B.Free School Movement 6:00-6:20
C.Unschooling 6:20-6:40
D. Autonomous Spaces 6:40-7:00

Unconference
A.Agenda/Session Ideas 7:00-8:30
B.Open space time/Tables 8:30-9:30
C.Presentation 9:30-9:45
D.Finale 9:45-10:00

Sining Kalikasan Aklasan Video Presentation 10:00-10:30

Open Time 10:30 onwards

Open Zine Library by Safehouse Infoshop

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The evening yielded a number of discoveries for me — places and projects I didn’t think existed but they did in this mad, crazy metropolis such as:

Etniko Bandido Infoshop and activity center is an
anarchist/autonomous space created to spread radical consciousness.
A place in which alternative resources and information can
be found easily and freely. It is also a space for people who
wanted to share and discuss different issues and ideas.

That’s EtnikoBandido which is an infoshop and community center located in the slums of Pasig dedicated to anti-authoritarian social relations.

Jestoni, the unconference organizer is a teacher in a regular school and on weekends, he pours his heart into an alternative academy he started himself in Caloocan.

Ang Mayari Independent Academy ay isang alternatibong akademya na nakabase sa pagtutulungan at pakikipagkapawa ng komunidad na bumubuo dito. Ito ay nakabase sa kooperatibang pamamalakad ng mga estudyante, guro, magulang at kawani nito, Ang praktika ng pag aaral sa eskwelahan ay nakabase sa ideya ng malayang pagpili, pagkakasunduan at pananagutan.

Ang akademya ay malaya sa kontrol ng sentral na edukasyo sa halip ang mga estudyante,magulang, guro ,kawani at taga suporta ng eskwelahan ang kooperitibang nagpapapalago sa akademya.

Kung gayon ang eskwelahan ay nakapag sasarili at hindi profit o non profit na organisasyon sa halip ito ay dindekalarang programa o proyekto na magbibigay solusyon at oportunidad sa pangangailangan ng edukasyon.

Ang akdemya ay hango sa modelo ng FREE SCHOOL MOVEMENT at hinubog ng mga nakaraang proyekto na ARTSKUL at Merdehekas Collective.

And here’s another one that bowled me over completely:  there’s already a democratic school in the Philippines and it’s in Payatas!

Fairplay began working in education through a drop-in center, whereby kids had a safe space to learn, play, and rest. We gradually began to sponsor regular kids who felt ready to go back to formal school through the drop-in center. For the most part this has been successful with attendance and grades improving gradually.

However over time it became clear, through research and input from the community, that this could not be a universal solution. If, for example, we sent all the kids currently out of school back to the classroom, class sizes would double from their already egregiously large average of 60-80 in Payatas. It wouldn’t work.

Nor does the traditional system work for most kids. So at Fairplay we believe there’s a better way. We believe in child-centered learning; the students have a say in how the school is run, in what lessons they take, and in how they shape their future. We believe that curiosity should be encouraged and become the corner-stone of the learning process, not shut down for a prescribed curriculum that has little to do with their actual lives. We believe children learn best when cooperating, not competing, when they are happy and engaged, not passively memorising. We believe teachers know their students better, and that they should be free to support their students in ways they deem best, without bureaucratic burden.

This is our vision for the Fairplay Center: the First Democratic School in the Philippines. Students learn at their own pace, focusing on social and emotional development first to ensure they see mistakes as a positive step in the trial and error process that epitomises the real learning process.

The growth Mindset (Dweck), Positive Psychology (Achor), and Emotional Intelligence (Goleman) are key to providing a platform for the kids to work through. The growth in the children have been wonderful to see. Of course we’re nothing close to a perfect learning environment, if one exists, but gradually we hope to continue to offer a happier, more effective learning environment.

Can’t wait to visit Fairplay when Ken Danford comes here in a few days!  And our tribe will meet again at Ken’s talk on July 14 at Fully Booked, BGC. 

Thanks Jestoni, Kimmi and everyone who made the unconference unbelievably possible.  Thanks Solo Arts and Dine for hosting.

 

 

The Non-School

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Clicking and copy-pasting the YouTube video hundreds of time, I failed to notice until today the interesting commentary below Ken Danford’s TEDx talk, School is Optional.  There are a lot of praises for North Star and Ken changing lives and saving the love of education.  Some of the comments date from four years ago and somebody quipped, “Five years later and the lie of ‘you have to go to school’ is still being perpetuated.” Even if it is perpetuated, at least there are options around that question the status quo and could be center-based (e.g. North Star, PLC and other Liberated Learners centers), school-based (e.g. Free Schools, Agile Learning Centers) or home-based (e.g. homeschooling and unschooling).

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Go down further the comments about the video and there’s an interesting conversation about the cost of going to North Star with critic and defenders exchanging opposing opinions online.

 

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Those fees are from four years ago and you can see the updated fees on the North Star website.  When  you translate the amount into Philippine pesos, it even becomes more staggering.  It’s more expensive than good quality private schools here and climbing up towards the stratosphere of International School fees, but that’s an unfair comparison because the economies of the two countries are different.  Average salaries, teacher salaries, cost of living, cost of education are poles apart.

We’re trying to jump start something like North Star and PLC here in the Philippines but the question is, who will pay an amount equivalent to the tuition fee of a private school in Manila for, as the critic said with derision, a “non-school.”  True, it is a “non-school” or the anti-thesis of a school or an “un-school” but that’s looking at it from the point of view society’s conscripted, perhaps corrupted definition of school.  The other way of looking at it is this: it’s even more of what a school should be or look like if we lived in an ideal world and respected the freedom of each being, regardless of age.

One on one tutorials and personalized education understandably cost more than mass, factory-style education.  Some parents understand this clearly.  For some parents, the cost won’t matter but for many, the cost will still be a clincher.  But the inevitable reality is that things cost – space to rent, salaries to pay monthly, utilities and other operational expenses.  North Star doesn’t turn away anyone who wants to be member and to continue doing this, they have fund raising activities and donors.

If You Build It Will They Come?

Do we build it first in the hopes that people will come like the baseball players in the Field of Dreams?  Or is too risky a suicidal venture?

Do we wait till we have a good number of families who believe in this?  How do we even find those families?

The non-school, the mock-school, the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school school — call it what you want but even Sir Ken Robinson himself was impressed with North Star writing about it in his book, Creative Schools.  Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity” has been viewed fifteen million times but still, one discouraging remark goes, “Almost 10 years since this video was posted and unfortunately nothing has changed.”

Maybe change is too slow, too unnoticeable, too one-at-a-time to make an impact but lives anyway, are always bigger and more complex than YouTube comments.

 

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In his book, Creative School, here’s what Ken Robinson wrote about North Star and his tukayo, Ken Danford:

North Star is a center (Ken and his colleagues are very conscious about not calling it a school, because it is not accredited as one) that helps teenagers discover a passion for learning that has either been derailed or tamped down in a major way.  While it is not a regular “school,” it serves very effectively  as one for many. “North Star is principally for teenagers who are in school and miserable, who don’t want to go.  Some are getting straight A’s.  Some of them have hobbies.  Some of them don’t know up from down and have all kinds of problems.

“There’s a thing about letting people be — about letting them choose for themselves — that’s so profound.  There was no way to get that when we were teaching.  What do you want to do and what do you want from me to help you?  They don’t know yet, so they have to try everything to figure it out.  That might include saying no to everything and emptying out their lives and seeing what happens if they do nothing for a while.  It’s glorious fun.”

While it might sound as though North Star is fast-tracking dropouts, the opposite is true.  Most North Star participants go on to college, including MIT, Brown, Smith, UCLA and Columbia, among others.  Participation in North Star is often seen as an asset by admissions directors, because North Star kids have a history of being self-directed and intellectually curious.

Ken and North Star understand that learning comes in a wide variety of shapes and size, that kids can’t all be taught the same way, and that when students are taught in a way that best fits the way they learn and what interests them the most, they can make enormous leaps.  While it is an unconventional model, its success suggests a need for all schools to think in new ways about the way they serve students.                                                                         

Living with Questions

While stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare called LTO today, I took advantage of the long lines by bringing and highlighting three books that have been on my “to read” pile for months and months.  They were books purchased from the Alternative Education Resource Organization last year.  Might as well transform the frustration from waiting and window hopping into purposeful use of time.

One of the books is Fearless Teaching, a collection of stories by Stuart Grauer who started The Grauer School for students grade 7 to 12.  Their website describes the school this way: “Students spend their days in a Socratic environment on our green, six-acre campus in Encinitas, California. We want our students to try classes for fun, make mistakes, follow a passion, and do things that they are drawn to, rather than plotting out a preordained or controlled path. We believe they will achieve more enduring outcomes and passions in this way, and develop values like personal motivation, freedom, and courage.”  Clicking on further and finding out more about the school makes you wish you can send your kids there.

At the start of each chapter of his book, Stuart Grauer poses some questions for teachers to ruminate on and ponder:

  1. How much of ourselves dare we reveal to our students?  What does it mean to be a teacher?
  2. The great martyrs and leaders through history – Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama, Mohammed – were all called “teacher.”  Who is called a teacher today?
  3. Where do students learn more at school, in or out of class?  Is the role of the teacher to liberate or control students?
  4. Have we accidentally re-engineered our classroom methodologies to exclude students who don’t learn like the teachers we hire?
  5. Working with teens, how do we treat the dark ones?  To what extent do conformity and “standard” expectations force our students to lose their way?
  6. What is essential to great teaching: providing great information or creating a great environment for learning?
  7. How can we make every class like a lab where genuine discovery is possible?
  8. Is our role as teachers and parents to help kids fit in or stand out?
  9. Would teaching in natural spaces result in a different kind of human development?
  10. What if we assigned, benchmarked, taught and measured student happiness in school: graded it, paid teachers for it, and ranked school systems by it?
  11. When was the last time you had a great conversation with a teen?  To what extent do teachers risk their jobs to do this?  Would you risk a job as a teacher in pursuit of great conversations?
  12. What are we doing to give our students a sense of real belongingness in the classroom and campuses?
  13. Are the measurable goals in student achievement more valuable than the immeasurable ones?
  14. What keeps us in this work?
  15. What if there are no answers?  Can we live with these questions?

 

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It is the chapter called Begin and Begin Again that I mostly wish to share with my teacher friends:

“At last unbound, I understood that it was never a teaching career I had been pursuing, it wasn’t any career.  It was freedom.”

“Once we invite the forces that guide us subconsciously to enter into the story of who we are, we have the opportunity for congruence. ‘You will love again the stranger who was yourself.’ (Derek Walcott)”

“Most of us are fearful to access the shadow self because it reveals our vulnerability, lack of control, and dependence.  We replace curiosity with a set of presumptions.  Our ego takes over.  The word ‘should’ creeps deeper into our daily vocabulary and our teaching.  Over time, we ignore the subconscious scripts that dictate to us how we define our “selves” or our profession until they are buried.  Who we are or could be is replaced by presumptions of who we should be.  We don’t want to give up our great resume, however artificial it seems.  And then, like it or not, one day we become aware of how very scripted we are.  We may or may not be looking for this.  We may be driving, or reading or walking – or teaching – and this realization comes upon us like a traveler.  Perhaps we let him in.”

“The awakened teacher embraces the occasional chaos of not knowing where the lesson will end, feels unburdened by the stodgy old authority systems and untethered by the geographical location of the school – but remains confident in the capacity and depth of students.  From the on, our real school is anywhere new thought, creativity, responsiveness and connection occurs among and between students and faculty.

“We will always confront, even within our own selves, the resume builder, the compliance driver, and the distant self-absorbed professional, along with the wild fallacy that our help is more valuable to others than it is to our own selves.  We recognize these ego-people when we see them, of course, and can sense their conflict sometimes mildly in their hurriedness, other times overtly in their diagnostic approach to relationships with students and colleagues.  Of course they are us.

“The disconnect comes early in life, when we join the educational competition that honors high scores above genuine relationships, creativity, and peace of mind.  Schooling can sever our minds from our souls, and as teachers, we can spend our entire careers trying to re-attach them.  Once we meet ourselves, we rediscover trust in our intuitions, in our curiosity, and in our students.  Coincidences, hunches and insights become part of our daily lives as they were when we were small children, and so we invite them into our classrooms.

“Eventually, we may open up the door to a set of presumptions that look pretty much the opposite of those with which we entered the profession; and we can discover a new definition of teaching: the study of the student.  Acknowledging our dependence upon our students and fellow teachers reveals our deepening interest and curiosity about them. We shift our approach from didactic to Socratic.

“Following our curiosity about how our students approach a topic or subject can become a fundamental and endless source of fascination, even though it sometimes does not pay off.  This, in turn, opens the door to authentic and more intimate relationships where students can become more curious about their teacher.  In this same way, we can discover new definitions for service: the study of those we serve.  We can redefine school site leadership as the study of the leaders around us, our faculty or our team.

“Our greatest teachers do not criticize our ideas, however bizarre they are – they only ask to know more. Sufi teachers refer to this as ‘wisdom of the idiots.’  Over time, if we are lucky, we may learn how little we know, and this is the essence of Socratic teaching.  We stop disguising our vulnerability and weakness, we sense that our view of the world is oblique and naive, and so we pursue our teaching and service as a way to access our own larger awareness and connection.  The great teachers, it seems, are those willing to take off their armor and drop the role-play, at least from time to time.  This is the field where we at last meet our own selves in the most natural way in the world, so that we can meet our students.”

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I was a somewhat reluctant but enthusiastic University English teacher in China for two years.  I didn’t want to call myself teacher because I technically did not teach anything.  Everything the student needed to speak and write in English was already in them.  They just needed to bring it out and I had to devise creative ways to help them let it out into the world.  Short of being a circus contortionist, it became easier through trial and error and through time.

As the “teacher” of my own children, however, it was less fun and more stress.  I keep wondering how to transform that.   Teaching the rudiments of reading and writing means you have to “teach” something so it becomes a chore for me and a bore for them, rather than that process of naturally facilitating the release of something from within longing for the light.

Working with the university students, I thought of myself as a “confidence-builder” more than a teacher.  With my own kids however, I often think of myself as a “confidence-destroyer.”   It’s different “teaching” university students and your own children below the age of ten but how different could it be when you’re reaching out to a human being just the same?