Why Are We Settling?
This post is by Loni Bergqvist, who teaches humanities at High Tech High Chula Vista in San Diego.
Growing up, my dad always used this phrase: He who rides the middle of the road gets hit from both ends. He would bring it up mostly in situations where I refused to voice my opinion, like settling on a college major or choosing a side when my parents were in an argument. I was always afraid of picking the wrong thing and even when I was decisive, pressure from the opposing force always seemed to drag me in again toward the middle.
I find myself repeating the words of my dad more and more these days. Lately, it's in reference to schools.
I teach ninth grade Humanities at High Tech High Chula Vista, a project-based charter school located outside of San Diego, California. Before coming to High Tech High, I taught several years in a low-performing traditional school. Every day I saw how disconnected my students were to their education and, although I was a fairly inexperienced teacher, I knew there just had to be better way for kids to connect to learning. Somewhere in the years of feeling frustrated, I stumbled upon the High Tech High Graduate School of Education and discovered the magic of project-based learning. I started the Teacher Leadership program and struggled every day to convince my colleagues that we should be more innovative with our approach. Other teachers said it was too much work and my principal was convinced that when it came to implementing a progressive pedagogy, there were simply too many "realities" to consider and that it was impossible.
So, I gave up. I resigned myself to these "realities" and left to teach with like-minded individuals at High Tech High. I thought I had reached the Mecca of education. For the first time in my career, I had the autonomy to design projects that were inspiring and innovative. I have (still) never been told no to a project idea.
Four years later, I've developed a new wondering about progressive schools: with all of our perceived freedom, why are we not innovating more? I've come to believe that organizations like High Tech High, no matter how much we've deviated from the traditional standard, are prone to being shaped by the same realities that my former principal was so concerned with.
Sometimes we even seem to be riding a dangerous middle road.
We are trying to do really cool things. Like engaging students in authentic, real-world work where they feel connected to each other and the adult world. Or exploring topics with teachers to answer complex questions like, how do we reduce gun violence in the United States? We are learning and making and building this project-based plane as we fly it.
And yet, we are still trying to prepare students to pass standardized tests, get them "college ready," design our own curriculum and translate what we value as a project-based learning school to parents who continually ask, Why isn't my child learning XYZ?
At our Humanities meeting a few weeks ago, we began looking at Common Core and how, even though we are a progressive charter school, we could incorporate the material into our projects so students were prepared to take the statewide standardized tests. Yes, I was annoyed that we even have to consider Common Core when planning curriculum. One solution was to divide the standards to make sure each grade covered at least one type of writing before the students take the test. We talked about using Common Core as a tool to examine student work and writing rather than an evaluation. I left the meeting dissatisfied. There was something missing.
The meeting felt oddly like the ones at my traditional school. We were finding common vocabulary within standards. Allocating content. Preparing for a test.
We never talked about innovating. We didn't brainstorm ways to make writing authentic in projects or how to better inspire students to find passion in their words. We didn't discuss how we, as adults/teachers/models, use our own pens to push limits and create change.
We reverted back to the middle road, a comfortable place.
It's a delicate balance between choosing innovation and providing an education to students that still results in everything else that traditional schools seem to promise. This aim to "do it all" is tiring and hard and almost impossible. Almost.
As a teacher in an innovative organization, I've learned that the (thoughtful) squeaky wheel is still essential to the evolution of education. Every school needs a person (or collection of them) who still think "why not?" Who still push what learning looks like on a daily basis. We still need individuals who passionately drive us to consider new ideas.
Even the most progressive schools cannot settle for a middle ground. We can't be done yet.
Why do we all seem to be so afraid of choosing a side?