Wanted: Systems that Promote Courage

Regularly, when someone found out that I taught 12, 13, and 14 year olds, I would hear that I was courageous. I never particularly thought that was true, and I still think that middle school aged kids get an unfairly bad rap. But I do think that teaching takes a certain kind of person. You need patience, persistence, organization, and a great deal of empathy to be able to do your best work on behalf of kids. And on this side of teaching (the side where I don’t have students with me every day), I see courage differently. Working in a system that calls for compliance and standardization often requires teachers to be innovative in how they deliver their very best instruction so that they (1) satisfy often arduous accountability requirements and regulations and (2) satisfy their students’ needs to learn, grow, and reflect; there’s courage in tending to these. But more remarkable than the courage that teachers need to display is the everyday courage that students must demonstrate as they try to do their best. Learning is incredibly difficult, and schools ask kids to do much more than learn any standard slice of curriculum (for instance, we ask them to develop nuanced social skills and regulate their emotions under stressful situations). When kids are supported in myriad ways, they’re able to do incredible, courageous things. Case in point: Seniors exhibiting their work at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School.

This past Friday, Kris and I had the opportunity to see a few of these presentations and reflect on the experience of getting a glimpse into their year of work and learning. Some background: At this 7-12 school in Devens, MA, students begin presenting their work in seventh grade, and the necessary skills compound. By senior year, students are able to present on a topic for between 30 and 60 minutes. The topic for the senior project is chosen by the student, guided by questions that the student identifies, includes a product that the student produces, and culminates in this presentation about their learning and process. Each year that I’ve attended these exhibitions (this is my seventh), I’m struck by how courageous an act this is. The work is entirely the student’s, and the structure of their presentation is designed by them. They also need to seamlessly deal with any kind of technological difficulty or rough patch that may come up as they present their work. Then, they answer questions from a panel of jurors and from their audience. I don’t know many people who particularly relish the concept of standing in front of peers and loved ones for an hour and sharing work they’ve designed and carried out; it’s anxiety-producing. But every year, each senior does this work. We were struck by just how individual these exhibitions are; they are a clear representation of each person at the center of the work. And so, the presentations varied. Some focused more on the reflection, explaining what they’d learned about themselves and how they would draw that experience forward. Some really dug into the work of their product to showcase what they were able to do with their learning. What helps them accomplish this task? I’d argue that there are a number of different factors, though patience, persistence, organization, and often, empathy play key roles. Oh, and courage. Without a healthy dose of bravery, these students wouldn’t be able to make phone calls and connections with professionals in the field, set up meetings and interview people they didn’t know, and get in front of an audience (including some who will go into another room to assess their presentation) and be willing to highlight not only what they did well, but also their pitfalls and missteps. We need more systems that prioritize this kind of work; we need a system that acknowledges that incredible, fruitful learning comes from what you get (at least initially) wrong. Let’s encourage more authentic opportunities and assessment for our courageous students; they’re counting on us. Until next week, Sara Don’t forget to Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter (@AstraInnovate)! Image by Sara Bailey