Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Good School

(With apologies to James Herndon, from whom I stole the idea of A Good School, and David Franke, who is listed here only as The Professor, though I'm sure he has never been to Gilligan's Island.)

I attended a good school tonight. James Herndon writes about what it takes to be a good school. His are usually in bars or around a pond where there are fish to be had and so on. Very rarely are they in schools themselves and when they are the good schools don't look much like what I think we're supposed to think of as school. Instead, they look like kids crashing monster kites made out of plywood, a water fountain with stuff stuck in it so that it spits across the room, and a kid drawing a huge razorback on a piece of poster paper. All of these look and sound like good schools to me, but given the push for accountability, learning, and scores on state tests that will show kids are ready to operate the drill press or meat cutter or whatever else they just have to do to keep the economy rolling, they don't count in the general public's mind, I think, as real and good schools.

Still, being a school teacher myself and not sure that it's possible to run a good school inside any of the school buildings in my region, I take my good schools where I can find them. Tonight the school was in a room in Cortland where a half dozen school teachers had gathered. It's hard to imagine a good school complete with school teachers (rather than bartenders or people trying to catch trout for dinner) but we pulled it off and made the thing work.

Our teacher, since we teachers were probably supposed to be the students, was a college professor who masquerades as a human being. He says things like, "intellectual is not a dirty word," and we enjoy hearing him say it since he's an intellectual and we still like him, maybe even because of his intellectual-ness. We like him too because the school is one in which he sits with us and tries to let us do most all of the talking. That's what happened a lot tonight.

But first, he started us with some writing.

Writing makes a good school if you do the writing right. First, you give people something they want to write about. Our topic tonight was a version of "what brings you to this good school?" We, being good students who want to go this good school, all wrote and so did our teacher. Then we went around and talked about what we had written, read what we had written, or just talked about something that came out of what we had written.

Pretty soon we were talking about these new standards that I've been complaining about off and on in these writings. We talked about what we were being told, what we were trying to understand, and one guy (it might have been me) talked a lot about how he wanted to pretty much throw a burning copy of the standards through the windows at State Ed.

This is when the good school could have gone wrong lots of ways. We could have had to come back to the topic at hand. We could have just gone on complaining (especially that guy who may have been me). We could have gotten into arguments. But we didn't do those things. One student turned the question just a little and then another added to the idea and another and so on. I said that what I wasn't getting and wanted to have was a theory of the standards. One of the students there offered one to me and that theory started to put the things into context for me. It turns out that my school's professional development (a bad school if ever there was one) is getting it pretty much all wrong because the admins are so scared about what all of this means for them.

A good school revives hope and that's what I got tonight was a dash of hope.

One more thing about this good school. Our group is supposed to do a workshop for a school in two weeks. It comes down to the college professor and me to figure out what that is going to look like. There were others at the meeting who worried that we have only a little bit of time to get this together and wouldn't we want to get right to it. The professor and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said we'd get to it. I said, "we can plan it in my car on the way there" and we both smiled.

In a good school, a place with good teachers and good students, there is a feeling that if we just get together, write, talk, and keep pushing toward being a good school, nothing could possibly go wrong. It has worked for five years now. I have no doubt our good school will fail us now.

Write on.