Empowering Education – Pipe Dream, or Possible?

Before I delve into what I believe the mission of public education should be, I thought about my very best educational experiences, and  my very worst. Here is my Letterman Top Ten Four for the former:

1. Hanging upside down at the end of a rope 100 feet off the ground

We had gone rappeling as part of our Army ROTC requirements, up at Indian Rock on Mount Emily, near LaGrande, Oregon. I had messed up on which hand went where with the rope, and ended up hanging upside down looking at the ground. MSGT Jack Cantrell, who had more color in his language than the “Prussian Blue” guy on the PBS painting show, called me his “Red-Headed Stepchild” and told me that I would need to let go of the rope (ouch!) and attempt to correct my appraoch to rope handling as I entered free fall. He then walked away and left me to my own devices.

I guess it was the utter lack of love on the surface that told me that he really cared about me…as I did manage to catch the rope and stop a few feet above the ground (with a little help from my belay).

2. Field Training with Mark Anderson – Post Falls Police Department

Sure I was 23, full of testosterone and lacking a fully developed frontal lobe. I also got so excited on the big events that I sometimes did not slam the car into park, and my paperwork was, well, ok on a good day. I was Mark’s project for 8 weeks, in which time he led me through a series of events, traffic stops, and conversations that showed me how to be a professional law officer. His expectations were high, errors were not encouraged, yet he treated me like a peer, not a peon. I knew that he wanted to teach me how to stay alive, and to be part of a team.

3. STELLA Training – Portland, 1996

I was fortunate to attend a training on how to weave computer modeling and system dynamics into our teaching. This was an NSF funded grant. It was two (or three) weeks of brain busting learning. My head hurt so bad every afternoon that I could not see straight. Although the relationship piece was not there with the instructors (just not a good fit for this short course) the content and hands-on application was so incredible, and useful to life and teaching, that I still use it today (to do heat flow studies for my compost heap).

4.  Place Based Education class with Greg Smith

We hired Greg to teach an introductory class to our teachers on how to weave in place with teaching and learning. We held these once a month on a Friday night (sounds crazy). The power of the discussions, and the organic emotional link for us as people to approaching our craft, was amazing. We laughed so hard we cried, and I still remember Greg’s response to a query about going out on a limb with this type of teaching…” If we do not risk something big, we are not living”.

and my Top Three for the latter (always have to have more positive!)

1. Shakespeare Class – EOSC, 1988.

I came to college not really knowing The Bard, as our high school exposure was discussion and watching an old film of one of his plays. I was excited to learn about it, until my second day of class. The professor asked for a response to a question, I raised my hand, as did several others. She looked at me and said – “You were probably too busy at football practice yesterday to do the reading” and then proceeded to look over the males in the classroom, one at a time, settling on one of the females for a response. I wanted to respond by telling her that I did not play college football (the coach had asked me to, but ROTC and other distractions kept me from it).  Needless to say, I loathed this person for her statement, based upon her belief.  I did the bare minimum to pass.

2. Digging Foxholes to standards – Ft. Lewis, 2003.

Yes, we spent a day digging foxholes, for what we all knew was going to be a counter-insurgency. This might have been a good fit, say, for Korea, or Vietnam, but not for Iraq. Everybody knew it, but we had to do it anyway. The act of digging, and of being evaluated, seemed totally unrelated to life (or our keeping alive). Sounds like state assessment tests….

3. “Paying attention to detail, Cadets” – Ft. Lewis, 1989

There we are at ROTC Advanced camp. Our squad has drawn a desk jckey for our NCO evaluator, who starts the day off on our field exercise telling us how lazy and inept we are, that we do not pay attention to details. Actually, we all did notice the lack of a combat patch on his shoulder, and the fact that he was either too stupid or too in-observant to notice that one of our squad was sporting a Ranger tab, with a combat patch. After a day of abuse, and an over the top critique of the Ranger’s skill in conducting squad operations in a patrolling environment, Mr. Chair-borne went too far. The mild mannered Ranger, after listening to the tirade, let the evaluator in on a little secret –  “If you do not shut up, I am going to slit you ear to ear and bleed you really slow out here in the woods.” Needless to say, the desk–jockey was not seen again.

Funny, that even though I had many great teachers in my public schooling, I am hard pressed to remember great moments in my learning. We knew that these people cared for us, and were working hard, yet the learning was mostly Teflon (no stick to the brain) comprised of reading, dittoes, and textbooks, with little or no connection to us as people or to the real world. It was knowledge for the sake of knowedge.

Let’s hear from you about your most memorable moments as a learner…good or bad.


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