Where’s the fire?

This week has been busy and it’s only Tuesday. It is the annual music festival in our community and I have 5 children participating in several categories plus my wife is doing a duet with one of the girls. It is also drama festival week which means our highschool drama troupe is hard at work practicing for their upcoming performance at the regional drama festival. The dance group that shares our multi-purpose room is preparing for competitions this weekend, two girls going. Too add to this it’s tax time, staffing is in full swing, teachers are a bit stressed as report cards for our seniors go out next week and our computer system isn’t working correctly so mark transfers are not working.

However, none of the above has to do with what I want to write about except to say that thanks to an interview process that had me driving, I was able to listen to a great interview of Christian Long by Alex Ragone . What was great about the interview was how Christian kept returning to the whole idea that this schooling thing isn’t about the school design or the books or the technology. It’s about the human relationships.

As I go from one activity to another, I watch my own children interacting with all sorts of different people – the piano teacher just before they play, the others players, the adjudicator, their dance instructor or drama coach or ….. In each instance, I’m seeing youth interacting and doing things that many adults would be incapable of doing – connecting with an audience through a medium of choice. In fact, tonight as I watched my daughter play a character coming from a broken home where she was the caregiver to a small baby because her mother was incapable, I was moved. I was moved, not because it was my daughter but because of the connection she made. This happened with all the main characters – a play about girls – who performed. In each case, the vignettes brought the auditorium witnesses to point of magnificent silence; they made a connection. It was powerful in the way only drama done by young actors can be powerful.

As I listened to Christian this afternoon, he reminded me that it’s the connection – the human relationships that exist – which are the most important connections in school. This was reinforced in Stewart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe episode entitled Wally (you’ll have to download via itunes to listen) – which describes the events that take place when a beloved school janitor is made redundant. It’s worth the listen if for nothing else than the message of the banana muffin. It’s all about the relationships. I know teachers who will never do what that janitor was able to do.


Whether it’s our best friend from school or someone that we have met along the way and to whom we have developed a bond, deep human relationships are very important to us. We may continue to develop these relationships through various means but it is our f2f interactions that really cement and make them. For youth, this is also true. I’ve watched as my own children have continued friendships long after moving. They may keep in touch over the net or whatever but it is the f2f ones that really impact them, cementing the relationship that was started many years ago.

As I listened to Christian describe what he learned going back to the classroom, I was reminded that we are not so much in a business of giving information, that’s Google’s job now. We, as teachers, are once again being asked to delve beyond the layers of information and make connections, relationships, with students that will push them to explore new ideas, challenge their own thoughts and understanding of the information and encourage them to develop a voice for themselves so that, when it is time, they can reach out to that audience and touch them.

Why the rush to Informationalize?

In our content saturated world, there seems to be a discongruency between the demand that students “know” something in order to move through the data demanding systems which have developed, or are developing, and, then upon leaving, their need to use a different set of skills that they have not been asked to seriously develop in schools; presentation to an audience and use of information to deliver a message – original in nature. There is this preoccupation to pump information at students, asking them to demonstrate they know the information but not asking them to use it for any purpose, other than testing, or to express it in any various ways, except on a test or assignment. They aren’t asked to convince anyone or deliver a pitch very often. They are often asked to defend their ideas – 5 paragraph essay format. Oral presentations are not really valued or taught yet many of these students will be required to work and thrive in fields that require extensive use of language and oral presentation skills. Just think of Miss Whatever State – she could have had some more help with that.

Where, exactly, is the fire?

We are aware of many different reports that demonstrate that to achieve all the goals and outcomes that are currently in the various curricula in any given place, educators would need much more time and, therefore, they end up choosing what they deem as important or what the textbooks deem important. We rush and push students, some whom are not ready for what we are asking them to do, to “learn” information that, at this point in time, is accessible to almost everyone in order to pass a test. Then, when they are done “at school” they leave and begin to relearn how to learn through experimentation, trial and error, modeling, mentorship and a host of other methods, the skills and tools that will be necessary for what they are doing. Yet, we spend little time on presentation of ideas and creating new from the information that we have.

How am I going to stem the fire?

In some cases, I don’t know if I can. However, we do have the opportunity to build in these skills through the methods we choose to have students gather information and present what they have understood and how that understanding has changed, or reinforced, their thinking.

Currently I am in the process of examining the manner in which we deliver electives to our students. One of the first things I am suggesting is that we meet with our future grade 10, 11 & 12’s to discuss what they would like to see. I know that larger schools may not have this option but it is one thing we can do and should do. We can then have very direct and open dialogue with parents and students about what they might want to see for options. A second idea is to allow students the option of having a project based class where some of the presentation skills and information gathering skills will be taught and used, not through a formal class setting but through project advisors who will work with students. This would also include having parents involved in some manner in a support role for the student, aware of the progress that students are, or are not, making. We are also discussing the way we offer classes – maybe moving to longer class periods and the option to have some blocked time for students in electives.

All of these and others are just ways for us to build the relationships in our school which, I believe, will enhance the overall learning that takes place. Good teachers can use whatever tools fits the moment because they have a connection with students. These are the teachers that we all remember from when we were in school. It wasn’t really their content mastery or the tools they used – it was how they touched us and the relationship we developed. It was the delivery of the content, their passion, the way they pushed us or a million other things. It was “a” connection.

I still believe learning how to use Web2.0 tools is essential for teachers and doesn’t let them off the hook for knowing how to use these tools and incorporate them. What it does mean is that this is all about human relationships and knowing when and how to leverage those relationships with various tools only enhances and builds the relationships. We teach people. Younger, sometimes smaller but none-the-less people. Each of them deserves a positive relationship with an adult – a banana muffin toting janitor. Doesn’t matter the tool, it matters how we use them to enhance the relationships.


  1. Reply

    This post is so right on.

    As a principal, you have the ability to make sure the system matches your beliefs about learning.

    And your observation about human relationships is so important. I’ve been reading the Passionate Learner by Robert Fried (posted about it on my blog a few days ago a couple of times), and the book focuses so well on how we all, educators, parents, leaders can support student learning that allows their passion to be embraced.

    I’m looking forward to hearing Christian’s interview. Ironically, in yesterday’s post I wrote about our library design, but found this marvelous quote–“The only important thing about design is how it relates to people” (Victor Papanek).

    But I would say that the “design” of a school’s systems and policies is the piece that most relates to people. And being willing to rethink them, to know how you want your school to look, is so important. It is ultimately the relationship at heart, but the policies and structure of a campus can do so much to warm and foster those relationships between students and adults there.

    And if you’ll allow me to wax a little poetic here, I think this is the piece that is so often missed in the rush to “fill the pail” with knowledge, so to speak–instead of trying to fill it with love–love of others, love of learning, and love of life. When students feel that spirit around them, and are encouraged to embrace their passions, it generates so many positives that they will carry away from that school with them–positives that are much more important than any list of facts.

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