Steven Levy

Way back in my early twenties I realized that the things which drove me batty about other people were actually things I needed to fix in myself. This has been a guiding principal of my life, but with added layers–there’s always something new to fix in myself, and often traits I thought were long quashed return in virulent and totally repressed forms, resulting in the realization that I’m more of an asshole than I assumed.

Steven Levy visited our school in Pigtown Friday, and we were fortunate enough to have him for an hour Professional Development session. He grouped the staff in fours and fives, then handed out a packet of poems with a protocol attached. He had group members rank themselves from 5 “Super-enthusiastic” about poetry to 1 “I could do without” poetry. The poems were numbered. Each of us read our poem, then shared our connections to it. I told my group that I would take whatever number was left over after they all chose, and was pleased to find that poem #2 was by Hafiz. Hafiz wrote about listening to everyone as if that person were his master uttering precious final words. Many of the poems were longer and more detailed, but none were more complex. They all shared a similar theme.

Also in the packet was a list of the Expeditionary Learning Design Principles. These are the core principles or values of EL schools, of which our Southwest Baltimore Title I Charter happens to be a blooming and miraculous example. We were instructed to choose a Design Principle our students really struggled with, the one they really fucked up all the time. The one which drove us most batty.

Levy shared a couple very simple and very cute examples from his practice of times when the thing most frustrating about his students turned out to be something he himself needed to work on. So eventually he began choosing something each year and really trying to solve that one thing in his life. And then he noticed that one thing wasn’t a problem with his students anymore. 

It’s all about the example we set. He began the session with a question: “Where does our authority come from?” It comes from living or practicing what we want the kids to do or be.

And so I chose The Responsibility for Learning, because my kids are unorganized, they lose their work, they turn in incomplete or haphazard stuff, they ignore homework assignments, they blame others for the state of their work or for losing it, or they blame the format or the instructions. All this drives me batty.

And I saw it immediately, how I no longer take responsibility for my own learning. i read haphazardly now, when I bother to at all. I don’t journal or blog about my reading with any regularity, and I don’t make marginal notes. I don’t read about teaching or teaching practice. I don’t read research about education or students or behavior, and when I’m asked to it’s like choking down a dry chalky medicine. I hate forms and the confinement of structured lesson plan formats. The comprehensive unit planning tool developed at my school last year feels like a prison. My boss gives me a lot of leeway because she knows me really well and knows how i function best. But if my planning consists of scribbles on a variety of papers scattered through a tote bag, if my end table has vanished beneath a sloppy stack of 13 unfinished books and 20 periodicals, if my planner is simply a storage place for odds and ends I gather through the week on Post-Its and scrap papers, and if I routinely ignore deadlines and requirements which don’t suit my character, it’s no wonder my students frustrate me when they do the same thing.

The last stage of our professional development was to team up with a partner and take a 20 minute walk. The first 10 minutes one person was to share while the other only asked questions. The second 10 minutes the partners switched roles. The middle school art teacher and I walked off and settled on comfy couches in the Teacher’s Lounge. We had an amazing conversation. We came back 8 minutes late to the debrief–I was the time keeper and did not take responsibility for doing my job–but sometimes as an educator you sense when it’s appropriate to go past the boundaries. There are magical moments which extend beyond forms and timers. My partner was uttering precious words and I listened like they might be the last.

At debrief there was a stillness I’d not felt at work for weeks. We’ve been run through the ringer of late. There were tears of gratitude and joy. There was powerful reflection. And a hint of Spring at last kicking winter’s ass.

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