Parts of this essay appear in At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for our Children’s Future (Peter Lang, 2022). https://www.peterlang.com/document/1166664
Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future
by Doug Selwyn
A group of approximately 30 teachers, administrators, over the family members, health officials and others in our town of Greenfield, Massachusetts met summer of 2020 attempting to plan for the opening of the 2020-2021 school year. COVID-19 was raging and we had to make choices about whether to have in-person schooling, a hybrid model that had children in schools some of the week and learning remotely the rest of the week, or to conduct school entirely remotely, at least to start.
Several things became evident as we considered our options. First, there might be no institution as inextricably bound to the community than are schools. Any decision we made would reverberate through the community, with consequences for families, for businesses, for those needing childcare, for virtually every aspect of town life. It also meant that what was happening in the community would have significant consequences for what was happening in the schools. Second, it was clear that what we already knew, that there was (and is) significant inequality across our community, was even more prevalent and more consequential than we had realized. Third, our schools were already severely underfunded and under-resourced before Covid. The arrival of Covid made things even worse, stretching resources beyond the breaking point, which made realistic planning all but impossible because there was no way to really do what needed to be done. Fourth, there would be no time to offer adequate professional development or preparation time for faculty and staff. And fifth, the federal and state governments were prioritizing political and economic interests over educational or health-related concerns.
And what was most clear was that the best-case scenario was to be able to get back to near “normal,” to the education we had before the arrival of the pandemic. We were in crisis mode and getting ready for the school year was all that mattered.
I had written a book two years before focused on the question, what would our schools look like if our primary focus was on the health and wellbeing of our children. What I found was that if that really was our primary concern we would have to address the underlying issues in our society such as the increasing gap between rich and poor, a lack of health care for mothers during pregnancy and for newborns and their families through their first months and years of life, and the various stresses and traumas our children were experiencing from racism, from living in a toxic environment, from a lack of access to health care, and from other social, or economic factors if we wanted our children to both be healthy and able to come to school ready to learn. We could not simply say to schools fix yourselves while doing nothing about the underlying issues in our communities and country.
No one on our committee had time or energy to think about these larger issues as we pondered how to open schools. They simply wanted to get back to as close to “normal” as possible. While I recognized the enormous pressure the committee was under to get schools open one way or another, having as a goal returning to a school system that was failing so many of our children, particularly those who are most vulnerable, was not good enough, so I decided to research the question what do our children need to learn and know and how can we help them to learn it so that they are going to be as prepared as possible to move into their future, which is, by definition, unpredictable. While we recognize that one of the responsibilities of the adults in our society is to educate our young, there is not always agreement about what that education should consist of, who should receive it, who should offer it, who should pay for it, and how it should be assessed. These questions led me to invite the thoughts of educators and activists on what education our children needed and how we might help them to achieve it. I cast as wide a net as I could in gathering points of view, experience, perspectives, and understandings, and we looked at several aspects of the question including understanding the role of schools within the larger society, learning from our experiences with COVID, looking at the content we offer, considering who should be teaching and how they should be educated, how we might assess, and what other models of education might we consider, beyond public schooling. I pulled the essays and interviews together into a book, At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future (2022), and want to briefly share what I learned, starting with a brief look at my own story.
I was mis educated about much of U.S. history by Walt Disney and other programs on television. I “learned” from Disney and other media that U.S. history really began with the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continued as (white) European Americans moved across North America fulfilling their Manifest Destiny to civilize and settle the essentially empty continent. I watched Disney’s take on Davy Crockett to learn about what that meant; fighting hostile, savage Indians who stood in the way of that Manifest Destiny, and later, fighting hostile, evil Mexicans who surrounded and murdered heroic Americans at the Alamo. Disney never mentioned the genocide and forced resettlements that were at the heart of Manifest Destiny, or the land grab that was the so-called Mexican War, or its link to perpetuating and maintaining slavery. It was nationalistic myth making that was echoed by virtually everything else that appeared on television, our prime window on the world outside of our neighborhoods.
Disney and other media also (mis) educated me about race relations, gender roles and values, which seemed to center on strong, silent, gun toting men who traveled alone or sometimes with a clownish sidekick, and pretty, vulnerable and relatively helpless women. And, of course, all the good guys (and women) were white.
Despite the fact that I went through a well-regarded K-12 school system, I did not encounter any real pushback to the Disney version of history until I was in college, and that pushback mostly came from “teachers” and situations outside of the classroom. I spent my summers living across the street from the Six Nations Museum, in Onchiota, NY (population 62), within a small Mohawk community, and got to know Ray Fadden, the man who built and ran the museum., “Uncle” Ray and my other neighbors helped me to learn a much more accurate picture of the genocide and forced removal that were the hallmarks of Manifest Destiny, and I learned more about the complex and layered governing and social systems at the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy that challenged virtually everything I’d been taught at school, or by Disney.
This experience awakened me to the need to question, to challenge, and to not automatically accept what I was being told in school, in my neighborhood (which was an essentially middle class, white, quietly racist community of young families), and from media of all sorts, including the news.
When I finally decided on becoming a teacher, more than a decade after graduating from college I thought back on my relentless mis education and realized I had to formulate my own goals, my own purpose as an educator. I came up with a short list of goals and aspirations for my work as a teacher, which I continued to add to with experience. They included:
The children are more important than any of the subjects.
- Every child should feel welcomed and valued.
- All children in class should have the opportunity to explore what is most important to them, at least some of the time.
- I should avoid using textbooks as much as possible as they are both deadly boring and inaccurate or incomplete.
- It is crucial to bring in more points of view and voices than what are featured in textbooks or in mandated curriculum.
- I must be a learner, to model what I hope the students will take from their time with me.
- I will bring as much joy and excitement to learning as possible.
- I want to help students to learn to critically question what they are encountering, including me.
- I must do everything I can to tell them the truth, and to help to learn to find the truth for themselves.
I can’t say that I have always been successful in meeting those goals, but they are always the compass points I try to steer by. My research and conversations while editing At the Center of All Possibilities have moved me to update my list. I would now add:
- Having an increased awareness of the cultures, histories, and contexts of the students.
- Learning much more about the impact that inequality, white supremacy, racism, and capitalism play in determining, or strongly influencing the lives we lead
- Becoming a more active and engaged advocate for social justice outside of the classroom. Helping students understand the crippling impact of slavery and racism on our society, that continues to this day
- Supporting students learning to listen and communicate clearly with their peers, and to work with them as allies and cooperators rather than as competitors.
- Developing alternative ways of organizing education that pattern after the freedom school model, with a focus is on a smaller, more personal educational experience focused on the needs and interests of the students.
- Assessing the quality of our work together, in my classroom and in my school by the quality of our lives inside and outside of school. How are we feeling about ourselves and each other, how are we behaving with each other, how much are we engaging in learning that is of interest, and how are putting what we learn to use in service to what we care about, in school and out. If there is no evidence that school is moving them towards becoming engaged, caring, and joyful humans then we are failing them and need to change what we are doing.
I would also add to my list the importance of reaching out to the community to help me to learn about the students, to learn about content I don’t know, to help me identify resources and to help me think through how best to make the educational experience as effective and meaningful and joyful as possible. Many of us enter classrooms thinking we must do it all ourselves and are reluctant to “blow our cover” by admitting we don’t know how to deal with particular content or a particular student or situation. That is evidence of a flaw in how we are trained rather than educated in our K-12 and university systems. I learned so much by asking them to be a part of this project. I hope that readers will keep this learning in mind as you think about how to transform education in your school or district, that you will be well served by inviting others to think and plan and act with you. We are in this together and are wiser and more powerful when we join together.
I want to close with a few words from Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee. He was in dialog with Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and said this: “If I had to put a finger on what I consider a good education, a good radical education, it wouldn’t be about methods or techniques. It would be loving people first…. and that means people everywhere, not just your family or your own countrymen or your own color. And wanting for them what you want for yourself. And then next is respect for people’s abilities to learn and to act and to shape their own lives. You have to have confidence that people can do that… The third thing grows out of caring for people and having respect for people’s ability to do things, and that is that you value their experiences. You can’t say that you respect people and not respect their experiences.” (Bell, Gaventa, & Peters, 1990, p 177-178)
There is so much that we can do if we trust, respect, and value the people we work with, beginning with our students and their families. When we trust, respect, and value people enough to listen to them when they share who they are, what they care about, and what their goals and dreams are, we have already taken a significant step towards the transformation of their educational experience, and ours.
Bell, B, Gaventa, J, & Peters, J. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Selwyn, D. (2022). At the center of all possibilities: Transforming education for our children’s future. Peter Lang.