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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Lesson in Southern Cultural History

By Peter DeWitt — June 10, 2012 4 min read
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In New York State we have a little over a week left with our students before the summer break. As sad as it is to say goodbye, we have a summer to reflect and get to help another crop of students grow in the fall. Reflection is good for all of us. We can learn from mistakes and relish in our really good ideas that worked well with our students. It’s important to reflect not only on the past year, but when we were students as well.

Long before computers inhabited our existence to the extent they do today, I took a graduate class in southern cultural history. It came at a time when I thought I would get a master’s degree in history; it was a thought that lasted for two graduate courses. Southern Cultural History was taught by Dr. Withington. She was originally from the south and spoke with the long drawl that proved she was born there.

Time seemed to stand still when she began her class. We sat around a long table and debated ideas and created new ones together. She didn’t teach as much as facilitate the class. Every once in a while she would throw out an idea, call your name and ask you what you thought. It was a three hour discussion on history of the south, and also consisted of so much more than just wars or battles. It consisted of music, literature and food, everything that made up the southern culture.

We spent nights talking about Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor, Light in August by William Faulkner, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. She treated our small class to some southern food from time to time. It was also the first time I remember the Civil War being called the Act of Northern Aggression. Dr. Withington took this once very insecure learner to a place he had never gone before. Through the words of Withington, O’Connor, Faulkner and Hurston, I found the art of reflection and dealt with the eternal struggles that can come with delving into deep subjects.

Although my pursuit of a graduate degree in History did not last long, the memories of that class have stayed in my mind for the better part of fourteen years and I find myself reflecting on them from time to time. It seems so long ago when we used to sit in a small dark room in the basement floor of the history building at SUNY Albany and disconnect from the outside world. It was one of the only graduate courses I took where I kept the books and still have them now in my private collection.

The class only had around 12 people in it, so you had to read each of the aforementioned novels because you were going to be expected to take part in the conversation. I was often intimidated to speak because most of the other students had done their undergraduate degree in the same subject at the same university. I was a bit of an unknown to the department. Over time I spoke more and became more accustomed to the art of reflection. The class also taught me the importance of balance and trying to not to do so much that you lose focus on what you need to do well. Withington had us engaged from the beginning of class all the way to the end.

Finding a Balance
These days we are inundated with so many positive resources through the internet. Many of these resources are at our fingertips. We no longer have to leave our homes and go to a quiet library to get work done. We meet up with colleagues through Twitter and other social networks, read blogs, and get caught up in the noise that comes with being educators. I am as guilty as the next person for diving into all of this and wanting a break for five minutes to recharge and dive back in again.

Unfortunately it isn’t until we have some sort of breakdown that we take time to relax, unwind and disconnect. I think it’s important to find ways to disconnect and teach our students how to do the same. They are just as busy with life as we are. They play multiple sports, have homework and text with friends. Sometimes it feels like they do this all at the same time!

During school it would be a great idea to find time where students can think for themselves. We are guilty in education of taking a good idea and killing it because it becomes the idea du jour that we want to do every moment. We hear that group work is a great way to learn so we make everything we teach revolve around group work. Technology is a great way to learn so we engage our students through IPads, netbooks, laptops or desktops most of the day, and we make ourselves feel badly when we do not provide those opportunities to students.

Having a proper balance may involve solitary time to write or giving them something to write about and not grading it. Educators may also take a step toward not reading everything their students write. We have a habit of trying to assess and keep data on every faction of their lives. Some parts of their lives, perhaps their writing, should remain sacred and just for them.

In the End
Working with our peers provides us with the opportunity to learn from one another. We get some of our best ideas through the synergy that comes with a group. There are countless examples of schools that provide cohort models so that students can work together and be creative. These cohort models sometime make students who are lagging behind work harder and rise to the challenge of pulling their own weight in a group.

Other times however, creative ideas can come from our own aloneness. Where we may pick up a good book from our past and remember some really great experiences that helped shape who we are today. Having a balance of being a part of the noise in education and finding an escape from that noise can help educators, and our students, find more success.

Not all students will be fortunate enough to take Southern Cultural History, and probably would not gain as much from it as I did. However, all teachers have the opportunity to teach students the same valuable lessons that I learned, and those students will remember their teachers for as long as I have.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.