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Discouraged from Dreaming

I spent much of the past week in a dream-like place: a spectacularly beautiful setting in the rain-forested mountains of central Puerto Rico, on the Matrullus river. I was there for IDEA Camp, hosted by the Institute for Democratic Education in America. I was surrounded by hopeful and reflective people, most of whom were as blissed out as I was by the raw beauty and power of the place.

Accommodations were very rustic, which pushed us out of our standard, rational, limited shoes.JPGways of presenting ourselves to the outside world--and into sharing deeper personal visions of what the world could be. What schools could be. Who we all could be, as change-makers.

As I said, a place to facilitate dreaming.

Having spent 30 years in the classroom, mostly with middle schoolers, I'm about as grounded as they come. I know, from deep personal experience, what fatuous, air-puffed educational crapola sounds like. I know there are kids who won't let you "save" them, despite your best efforts--and ludicrous rules that can't be circumvented, not if you want to keep drawing a paycheck. I have ruthlessly and unapologetically compelled 7th grade boys to write "I will not empty my spit valve on another person's chair" 25 times, for Pete's sake. I'm no airy fairy.

And I don't believe that soaring rhetoric solves real problems. Truthfully, I even wonder sometimes if optimism and servant leadership aren't overrated. But I was changed by something very simple and important that I heard at this gathering. It came from an elementary principal who said that her teachers were discouraged from dreaming, and that this loss was just killing her.

Think about that: Discouraged from dreaming.

We're rounding up our teachers in metaphorical orange plastic nets and giving them explicit, linear instructions--mandates--on how to standardize their instruction for maximum measurable "results" (a word I have come to loathe). We've pushed all students to adopt standardized education-credentialing goals--"college-ready"--even when their own dreams may be far different. Schools, which should be the repository of diversity and aspiration, have shifted to advertising, "blatant marketing and angst," with winning schools filling their classrooms, and losing schools forced into closing.

Nobody in public education gets to dream any more, to wonder "what if?" or try out alternatives. Our grand visions--personal and collective--have been defined and packaged for us. Educators have had their personal autonomy, mastery and purpose questioned, made fun of--and removed. The time-honored image of "teacher" has been replaced by "educational entrepreneur"--one who can find a way to replicate and fund his own vision, or her own mission.

This ain't what democracy looks like.

It was heaven to be disconnected from the distressing running feed of education policy and practice for a few days-- to have the chance to dream, unimpeded and nurtured, of what could be. And how we could get there.

Most days, it feels as if the only people who get to have a dream about wonderful schools are those who aren't actually working in schools. As my friend Roxanna Elden wrote, in a smart blog response at Education Next:

It is disingenuous and unfair to suggest that non-teachers in clean, well-decorated offices with all the copy paper they could ever ask for somehow care more about poor kids than teachers who get up at 5AM and break up hallway fights and work with these kids every day.

Thanks, IDEA, for the space--and thanks to my comrades-in-visioning.

You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one...

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