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Tonight’s discussion will be led and moderated by 20-year teaching veteran and author Kurt Wootton. He is cofounder of the ArtsLiteracy Project in the Education Department at Brown University, and he is currently the director of Habla: The Center for Language and Culture, an ArtsLiteracy lab school in Merida, Mexico. His first book, A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts, was written with Eileen Landay and recently published by Harvard University Press. He is also a relatively new parent: his daughter is a little over two years old. (Go here for full bio.)
Kurt has so kindly written tonight’s post and discussion question on the introduction to Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well. He will also be around to comment and reply to your thoughts and questions. We are so excited to have him! Welcome, Kurt!
Dance Like No One’s Watching, by Kurt Wootton
Think back to a classroom experience that looked something like: a) read a chapter in the textbook; b) fill out some worksheets; c) listen to the teacher lecture; d) take a multiple choice test; e) repeat the process throughout the entire school year. This was my, and probably your, experience in many classes: algebra, history, physics, biology, chemistry. We view students as “successful” if they are able to consistently and quickly memorize large quantities of information the night before a test. If students do this throughout their school career their classmates and teachers will call them “smart,” even if they can’t think through a complex problem, collaborate with classmates, or create something original. The formula of teaching students facts and then testing them is very easy. We know who is the “best” student and who is the “worst.” We know who should be in the honor society or who is the valedictorian, but we aren’t developing and rewarding the broad range of diverse skills and talents our students bring to the academic environment.
Madeline Levine, in her book Teach Your Children Well, encourages us to move beyond valuing such superficial accomplishments and push ourselves and our children to embrace what she refers to as “authentic success.” Madeline notes that, “We know far too much about promoting healthy child development to continue to tolerate the myth that success is a straight and narrow path, with childhood sacrificed in the process. The truth is that most successful people have followed winding paths, have had false starts, and have enjoyed multiple careers.” We spend so much time in our schools assessing our students with micro-tasks—problems sets, quizzes, tests, papers—we either push students away from school, or, for those that choose to play the game, as Levine notes, they often become sleep-deprived, stressed, anxious, or even depressed.
Learning should be about taking the time to contemplate the questions of the universe. Imagine a physics teacher walking into her classroom and explaining to the students, “This year you will work in groups to try to do what Einstein wasn’t able to: to construct an overall physical theory of the universe. First you need some background information. Let’s start with Newton.” Or imagine an English teacher saying, “We read to understand who we are as human beings. We’ll consider what Hamlet’s problems have to do with our own, and by the end of this course you just might see your life in a different way.” In these classes the chance at arriving at a “correct” answer is largely out of the question. But imagine the journey!
Contrary to what many parents might think, even the road to external success is windier than it would appear. I taught for many years in an Ivy League school. Most of my students weren’t perfect academically in high school, but they were nearly all interesting. It seemed that the admissions office was not looking for the seemingly perfect student, the ones who always filled in the correct bubble. There were plenty of those applying. They wanted students who had a strong sense of integrity and a passion for something. There was Daveed the fabulous hip-hop lyricist and Jody who could dance like Michael Jackson. I remember one of my students, Liz, who wrote a top ten list of why the school should accept her, rather than writing the college essay. When I asked her about it for this article, she wrote me:
I did write a top ten list for my college essay; how on earth do you remember that? I’m pretty sure it was full of “dance like no one’s watching”-esque nuggets and Bob Dylan lyrics, though for some reason they let me in anyway.
These were students who had followed their bliss, to use writer Joseph Campbell’s term, and it showed.
Perhaps all of us as teachers and parents must work to do less talking and more listening—less cajoling and more observing. We need to help our young people find what they are passionate about and nurture those passions at home and in school. Madeline offers this definition of “authentic success”:
“Authentic success is being ‘the best me I can be’ not simply in isolation, but as part of a community, and it always includes a component of meaningful contribution and connection with others.”
Tonight’s Talk: What are authentic successes and what are the various ways we, as parents and teachers, can work to help our young people achieve them rather than the superficial ones our schools and society often demand?
I look forward to the conversation.