Tie And Jeans

CMK Reflections: Fiefdoms and Revolutions

One of the best tricks for teachers to pull in any school is to build a class/program that, from the perspective of the institution, is completely useless. Build a bubble between all the places where students are forced to go. Provide them with opportunity and responsibility but no requirements. A space to celebrate their enthusiasm, encourage their accomplishments, but shield them from all external pressures.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Working within independent schools offers more opportunities to build these oasis, but it’s not automatic or perfect. I commiserated with another teacher at CMK about the joy and frustration of having a class that doesn’t count. It’s hard to see amazing student work be dismissed because “they just have fun in your class.” As if that wasn’t the point. As if that somehow invalidated their learning!

Once a teacher has slipped into their school’s Neverwhere or UnLunDun, it’s incredibly tempting to set up camp and stay off the grid for as long as possible. Not sure if there’s a pocket like this at your school? Look for the teacher who quietly spends out of pocket, and says stuff like “I would teach this for free.” The work is incredible, personal, and rewarding. Niche programs attract students who are excited, which naturally leads to students who thrive. Those relationships are powerful, and help weave a cult of personality around the teacher and the program. For independent schools with at-will employment contracts, anything that creates an impression that YOU are unique or irreplaceable has incredible value.

Last week, CMK reminded me of the real costs of teaching and learning beneath the radar.

When a course or topic becomes an exception, uniquely tied to a particular teacher, the whole school loses. What should have been the small start is forgotten behind closed classroom doors. The energy that could have fueled a broader revolution is sequestered away and dies in a fiefdom.

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8 thoughts on “CMK Reflections: Fiefdoms and Revolutions

  1. I agree that fiefdoms are incredibly dangerous. Ideally, something like CMK should run in every school that has any constructivist teachers at all. There should be a genuine effort to share skills, build a range of shared experiences and philosophies, and make sure that critical programs are not lost. But that’s as much about creating tribes, a la Seth Godin, as it is about communication and community. It’s really about helping each school develop its own culture of excellence. And school cultures can’t thrive if they’re all the sorts of monoculture institutions we have now.

    I don’t know how to do that. I fear that the IDS design lab will become one more fiefdom among many, rather than a place of transformation. Already I feel like I might have more of an effect by opening a HackerSpace here in town, rather than trying to reach just my own students. But that requires a far different mindset, and planning process, than what I’m currently trying to do. And it requires a different skill-set, more rooted in Arduino and MakerBot than the kavad’s archangels and foamboard-and-ductape hinges.

  2. tieandjeans on said:

    I’m not sure if a public Space requires an Arduino / Makerbot expertise. My brief trip to Artisans’ Asylum convinced me that having some connections to large technical organizations is essential if you’re in the market for surplus / cheap hardware, but that a true open space will quickly outstrip any individuals pre-existing expertise. Instead, new individuals will come into the space with new ideas, which will generate new material and foster the required skills.

    Schools do seem to strive for monoculture. Even ones like ours, which lack the legal pressure for homogenization, drift that direction to avoid questions (or accusations!) of unfairness. Everyone lives in reductive binaries, so anytime there’s significant differences between teachers and classrooms, an administrator will have parent phone calls about why their child has the “bad” whatever. In systems that outlaw student choice and movement, there’s no more corrosive question. If students aren’t allowed to find the adults and spaces that they prefer, then the industrial molding hammer *has* to fall on every aspect of the school day. One style, one experience, one product. One test and father of all.

    The challenge I took away from CMK was how to re-invision the Makers experience into something that’s open and voluntary for the whole student population, rather than a schedule-delimited exclusive club. Gary Donahue at Chadwick International brought a great collection of material to CMK that hilighted how their Design Lab was becoming a general curricular resource. I think we can take lessons from the better Service Learning programs, where the “how/who can we help?” question becomes imbedded into the heart of all classrooms. In fact, Design/Making can serve as a extension verb for that. “Can we make something that would help?” is a powerful question.

    • I can’t remember if I’ve asked you this, but are you likely to come to CT with a team for the New England Design Symposium at my school on April 6? Or is that just too far out there for you all?

      • tieandjeans on said:

        I don’t remember hearing about that before, but absolutely yes! There’s a small cohort at our school that’s exploring design principles and I’d love to have an event on the calendar for them.

      • Andrew,

        I’m still designing the April 6 challenge, but if you can, put it on your schedule… although we’d have to figure out a way to put you up, up here in central CT. In effect, it’s going to be a day about food and landscape. Create a portfolio of information about a problem having to do with food in your community — defined as school, neighborhood, town, region, state, but generally relatively-local. Identify the resources that can be used to solve the problem: money, land, community organizations, etc., that might help solve the problem.

        When you get here, you’ll get handed a portfolio from some other team, and try to solve their problem; another team gets yours. We’ll assign prizes for the best problem-portfolio, and the best solution to someone else’s problem.

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