4th Grader Breaks Concrete with Single Blow

Concrete is so uniform when it is finished, seemingly indestructible, flat on its surface, and conforming to the shape of the forms into which it was poured. Everything underneath becomes buried, unseen, and forgotten except for the understanding that it exists only to fulfil its role to support the concrete – a quiet and enduring suffocation..

As a school administrator, I used to be a “concrete” education champion, espousing those that worked it, poured it, financed it, and maintained it through the application of sealants to minimize its physical detractors, or through poisons or mechanical extraction (suspension/expulsion) to eliminate its living adversaries. If we did not have proper and uniform concrete, if cracks were seen and weeds allowed to take root underneath, our foundation was surely in jeopardy, and all would soon be lost.

Any antipathy towards concrete had been repressed through a young adulthood of military training and service in the National Guard, and a parallel training in values and procedures through my administrative licensure, with a few notable exceptions of the promotion of social justice from powerful voices at Portland State University. While I understood the need for individual action to promote social justice, I unknowingly continued to support some parts of the system (concrete) that were working against it.

In my first year as an elementary school principal, a 3rd grade teacher ran her classroom based upon a philosophy of sustainability and social justice. I supported her efforts not because of a deep connection to them, but rather to follow my military training of “supporting the commander in the field” as she attempted to meet the mission of educating our youth. She had asked to start a school recycling program, which met with limited excitement, but soon became accepted and then applauded by most staff. Little did I know that this “seed” that had sent a shoot up through the concrete would make a path for other seeds that had been lying in wait for a crack that allowed sunlight and a bit of moisture through.

7 months into my principalship, during a February, 2003 staff meeting, I received my phone call to report to duty with the 82nd ROC, Oregon National Guard, as we were deploying to Iraq. One week later, I was gone.

The obligation I felt to be on call to help thwart the enemies of freedom soon came into conflict with what I was seeing daily as my tour wore on. Iraq was a country unraveled at our hands. The common person had no security, no job, and had to contend with our forces searching their homes, blowing up buildings, and arresting relatives who may or may not have been involved with attacks on our forces.  Many of the dead were locals who had not been part of the Baath Party, but were young men who wanted to expel the Infidel from their homeland.  I transposed the situation to my country, and asked myself what the threads of our social fabric were, and how strongly were they woven? Could schools as a system become a powerful weaver of a just society? What type of strategic approach could accomplish this task? A jack hammer had started to work on my love of concrete.

My return to my school saw that the shoot left there had continued to grow, the concrete around her continuing to buckle, as she had written grants and secured an AmeriCorps Volunteer to help to add composting and a greenhouse to the school. Budget cuts prompted staff to write grants, which happened to support their individual wishes to bring project based learning to the school. Many staff began to propose projects that supported environmental study and social responsibility. More shoots began to peek out of the concrete. The jack hammer that had started to work on my own concrete thoughts about how to educate youth struck its final blow one spring day as I leaned against “The Wall” with the 4th graders as they obediently waited to go to recess. A particularly inquisitive girl led me down the golden path of logic with such adeptness that Perry Mason should take note.

Her question provided the final jack-hammer stroke to my old beliefs about education.

“You were in the war in Iraq, right?” she asked.

“Yes.” I replied.

“I read that in Vietnam that sometimes they used kids to carry bombs, so sometimes the soldiers had to shoot them.”

“I read about that too” I replied.

“So, if I was a kid in Iraq, and you thought I was dangerous, would you shoot me?”……….

A few things hit me quite hard after her question. The realization of how our educational system conditions students and staff towards obedience, while encouraging them to be passive receptacles of knowledge, sounded a loud crack through my being.  After this conversation and her question, I knew that I could no longer be a “get along and keep a lid on it” kind of principal – or else I was a copy of what I had seen from the officers in Iraq who had done evil through their action, or by following orders they knew to be wrong.

When a new assignment came up to build a new alternative school program arose, paired with grants and partnership work, I jumped at the opportunity. The school counselor in this new program recommended that we have the students engage in serving and helping others and to weave it into their learning. The teaching and support staff agreed. The next year saw our program log over 3000 hours of service learning for our school of 45 students. Young men hardened by tough home situations could be found knitting hats for premature babies at the hospital. Teens who had never handled tools were building bat boxes and bird houses, and presented to the school board the science and implications of their work.

My own understanding of education had been broken, and I was in need of a new model to replace that which had been destroyed. I knew that service learning and project based learning were good things to support, and that students seemed to respond to the style of learning, for the most part. Some were so conditioned, that they begged for stacks of packets to fill out in isolation.  I knew that the concrete of our American educational system, poured to support classrooms that were boxes, with processes and a culture that promoted students as passive receivers of knowledge, was not good. I saw it cracking in some places, and was supporting the shoots that I saw bravely daring to raise their heads above the surface. At the same time, I could not imagine what would replace the concrete, and as a school and district administrator still indirectly supported the “concrete repair” process without consciously thinking about it.

The replacement of concrete as a means to educating youth came in the form of three mentors. The first was Ed Armstrong from Tillamook. He had relayed to me the importance of engaging community partners and creating powerful learning experiences rooted in the community. The second, my superintendent, who continued to unravel for me enough rope so that I might hang myself with each new project or partnership that staff engaged in and I attempted to support with resources and grants. She had guided me to dig into experiential learning as an administrator. The last, and most powerful, was Greg Smith.

Greg teaches in the Education Department at Lewis and Clark. I attended a meeting of Place Based Education enthusiasts at Lewis and Clark one December evening, which Greg hosted. For the first time in my career, I felt like I was with others who I could freely share ideas about how to empower students and staff to educate for a more just and sustainable world. With the support of my superintendent, I invited Greg to lead two teacher courses where he showed groups of our staff how to engage students in authentic learning, rooted in the community. These meetings were held on Friday nights, after long weeks of work for these staff. I noted three phenomena through this process. First, that the staff felt so comfortable and empowered in this process that they would allow themselves to become emotionally engaged in the conversations. Second, that they began to realize they could reclaim ownership of their teaching. Lastly, that they could become leaders in their schools in a non-threatening way.

Using military principles (mission, objective, security, etc) in setting the “battlefield” for educating for sustainability in my district has been invaluable as I seek to support teachers and principals in this work. It has given me a method, or the “How”, in using resources and planning projects. Crucial to my efforts to reform schooling, was a superintendent that supported PBE, principals that encouraged PBE projects, and teacher champions that carried them out. When combined with local partners, we have been able to create powerful learning experiences for students that make our community stronger at the same time. Has PBE become a mandate in our district, or do we measure implementation with scaled rubrics and standardized assessments? No. It has become a collection of quietly growing staff (shoots) creating compelling education as they go.

Greg’s teachings gave us a new paradigm of foundation for allowing student learning to become what it can be – rooted in the community, promoting social justice and environmental stewardship.  As our shoots become saplings, concrete is giving way to a self-sustaining forest floor.

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