Education Opinion

Keeping Company With Kids, Not Lecturing at Them

By Deborah Meier — October 30, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

How many of our friends 10 years ago would have imagined that in 2008 you and I could almost be writing each other’s columns? At least when it comes to NCLB, and quite a lot of other things—but not all! More or less amen, amen, and amen to every word you wrote on Tuesday.

By the time folks see either of these columns we’ll have discussed this in public at NYU (Monday) and I’ll have moved on to Pennsylvania to try to add a vote here and there to Obama’s column, and visiting an old friend (Ruth Jordan) who I share a long history with. When I won that unexpected MacArthur award in 1987, I called Ruth immediately to ask what I should do with my five minutes of fame and glory. She came to my aid, as she always has and stretched that five to 10-plus. She also came up to NYC to help our parents and staff figure out how to say what we wanted said in sound bites. That was hugely fun and important. So we keep trying and trying.

An exhausting week in Minnesota and seven crammed speeches in Winnipeg was a tough test. Having Jane Andrias with me in Winnipeg, doing a terrific job of helping to uncover the power of childhood, helped. We met lots of great folks, including many who agreed with us and who are working in contexts (Manitoba, at least) that haven’t yet become enamored of “the business model.” My old Coalition friend Elliot Washor of The Big Picture Company gave a great speech, too, about their groundbreaking maverick schools (70 in all—including a dozen in the Netherlands and Australia!). It was a lift. But, alas, I’m more and more intrigued about how little we (Canadians, too) think about the requirements of a healthy democracy, and above all the education of an informed citizenry, not to mention any connection between schools and democracy.

You probably recall our effort at CPESS to define five habits of mind we thought not merely compatible but essential to good citizenship. We used these to a large extent to define and defend our curriculum and our assessment tools. Together they might be summed up as the habits of exercising sound judgment. If these were good ones, we figured they should inform our assessment also. CPESS has fallen victim to the larger system within which it exists, but there are offspring in many places that have adopted the same approach or invented their own forms of it. Sometimes our colleagues have come up with quite different ways to frame the goals, which adds to the conversation. There are dozens of these in NY state that have managed to avoid the state’s killer’s ax. I dare not mention them for fear that someone will notice that they’re still alive and well! I’d love—once this election is over—to discuss these alternative approaches with you, and our readers.

I was just watching a program about Obama in Africa, and I was struck by his tone of voice—how conversational it was. That’s rare among public figures, and it’s something I listen for in schools. There’s too often a very off-putting kindergarten teacher’s voice, and so on all the way through the grades. I catch myself speaking that way on occasion. What would schools be like, I imagine, if we learned to use our conversational adult voice within its four walls. It might immediately remind us that we are keeping company with kids, not lecturing at them. It might also suggest to them that they might speak to us in the same way. After all, our way of talking, arguing, persuading, and thinking aloud are, however unintentional, models for those we share the space with. How might we, in short, create for the young settings in which they learn how to join us in the adult world? This would include modeling themselves on the varied styles of adulthood we offer, while also inventing their own ones—suitable to their ages, the generation they are growing up in, and their own unique personalities. Instead, we’ve carefully designed a society in which the closer our young get to adulthood the fewer authentic relationships they have with adults. That means, of course, that we have fewer relationships with the young, as well. Just thoughts as I recover from one grueling week and enter into another!

By the time I write you again—right?—we’ll know whose voice and style will dominate the next four or more years. My fingers are crossed.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.