Last Spring, I spent a recent Saturday with a dozen bold leaders: Joannah, James, Mia, Amanda, Antonio, Daniel and other middle school students at Howitt Middle School in Farmingdale, NY, which hosted the Connected Educators of Long Island Annual Conference.
With me were several hundred other aspiring learners — educators and administrators from Farmingdale, across Long Island and throughout the metro New York area. We did our best to keep up with the leaders.
Dr. Bill Brennan, conference organizer, introduced the panel of leaders and learners. He asked Daniel to repeat a request he had made at the beginning of the school year:
“Why can’t we have one period every day where we study what we want to study, and collaborate with other students who love the same thing?”Next, Mia (the blonde girl in overalls who appears 18 seconds into this Microsoft video about Girls in STEM, explaining that she wants to research a cure for breast cancer), told the crowd that she followed up Daniel’s question with a “Yes, but” question:
“Why isn’t that what school is?”
Bill then asked the crowd if anyone had an answer for Mia. No one did, so the rest of the panel, and indeed the rest of the day, was dedicated to moving reality one step closer to Mia’s vision.
Superintendent John Loretz, who fully supports the stellar work Farmingdale’s educators are doing to move in this direction, acknowledged his own discomfort with change. He said:
Don Gately of Jericho talked about how he transitioned from always being the expert to becoming the “lead learner.” He called it “liberating,” explaining that,
“As the expert, I had to have all the answers and get it exactly right. As the lead learner, I learn more from others, and I take more risks, because I’m less afraid to make mistakes.”
How is this working out for him? In 2016, he was named Middle School Principal of the Year in New York State. Bob Joyce, a teacher in the Massapequa School District, discussed how when he told students exactly what he wanted them to do, at best he got back exactly what he was looking for — and nothing more. He has shifted his assignments to be more open-ended, and students often produce results that greatly exceed his expectations.
The best part of the conference for me was attending it with my daughter, Maggie Moran, who is a first year, first-grade teacher in Boston but soon moving back to teach early elementary / special ed in New York City. She is a sponge who eagerly absorbs information, and she felt like a kid in a candy store, learning from so many remarkable people. She learned about Plickers and began using them in her classroom the next day!
Maggie told me almost breathlessly about “Classroom Without Walls”- a joint “K-8 Collab”between Bonnie McLelland’s Kindergarten Class in Farmingdale and the 8th grade class taught by Bob Joyce in nearby Massapequa. It involved “digipals,” “buddy videos,” escaped gingerbread men, “Missing Gingerbread Man” flyers, a special Christmas surprise, and so much more. All of the students involved learned digital media and literacy skills, and more importantly, learned that there are people they’ve never met who care a great deal about them.
In the closing session, Bill played this video by Dove about the one thing you’d like to change about their body. We discussed the takeaways after; one of the leaders noted:
“The kids in the video all imagined something remarkable that they wished could be. The adults all focused on their flaws, and how they wish they could make it better.”
This insightful remarked moved the discussion to how human beings change from dreaming of what could be right, to focusing on what’s wrong. One of the teachers then began to talk about risk-taking and fears. One of the younger students bellowed out,
“Would all of you adults stop talking about being afraid? Just stop being afraid. Take chances with us.”
I concluded the discussion by noting that in “What Would You Do If You Knew Yo Were Limitless,” Rebel Brown writes,
“Before we’re 17 we’re told “we can’t” 150,000 times. We’re told “we can” only 5,000 times. That’s 30:1 programming in favor of the negative. That explains why we limit our lives, our beliefs about ourselves, our goals and our human race. We weren’t born to have the fear and limitations we carry with us. We were born to believe in our potential.”
I then encouraged the group to think about the many ways we say “no” to kids; not just through the literal word, but through all the words we use, and the way we say them, and how we act and carry ourselves. I urged them all to find ways to say “yes” more.
Let’s all become the adults these leaders urged us to be.
Let’s stop being afraid. Let’s all find ways to change the education landscape so that in the next generation of students, not one of them ever asks,
“Why isn’t that what school is?”