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Challenging Our Assumptions: Finding the Roots of Educational Change

| Stephen Hurley

My dad is an avid gardener, and, though the passion for planting and nurturing peonies and petunias has not rubbed off on me, I have learned from him a few things about living a richer life. One of the most important of these lessons relates to ways of approaching change. "You've got to know where the roots are," he would say when teaching me how to get rid of unwanted plants, move a shrub, or properly water a tree. "If you don't know where the roots are, you're just guessing!"

Excellent advice for a gardener, but I think there's also a message in those words for those of us dedicated to school reform and educational change. It's fine to talk about more technology in our classrooms, smaller class sizes, new teaching and learning strategies, teacher training, and higher test scores, but few of these discussions get us to the heart of the matter -- the roots of our current system.

Our change initiatives need to begin with a consideration of the many assumptions we make about school -- what it should look like, feel like, and sound like for it to be legitimate. I believe these assumptions are deeply rooted in our own school experiences and, consequently, hold us firmly in place.

For a long time, I've dreamed of creating something different within our publicly funded school system, and I've recently been given the opportunity to realize these dreams by designing a new arts-based initiative for seventh- and eighth-grade students in an elementary school near Toronto. This year, an inaugural class of thirty-four seventh-grade students will join me on a journey to reimagine what it means to say, "I'm going to school!" Through visual arts, drama, dance, music, and media production, we'll explore our mandated curriculum -- and hopefully engage my colleagues in refreshing conversations about school reform and educational change in our district.

Although I immersed myself in as much of the arts-related research as possible while planning this program (and explored the many large- and small-scale art initiatives), I knew I'd eventually have to tackle -- and really understand -- my deeply rooted assumptions about teaching and learning if I wanted to form a truly well-rounded program.

So, as August began to wind slowly toward September, I found myself getting out the shovel, digging for roots, and asking myself the following questions:

  • What kind of physical environment lends itself to the type of teaching and learning I want at the heart of this program?
  • How can new technologies improve our communication with parents, students, and other stakeholders or help me reimagine the way we learn within a classroom?
  • How can relationships within the community be nurtured and grown?
  • In what ways could our program help revitalize connections between school and university?
  • How can an arts-based learning model help us rethink the way we schedule curriculum activities throughout the day?

For years I have dreamed about new ways to conceptualize school. Having someone finally say, "OK -- go and do it" is a little scary, and the resulting process is extremely time intensive, but here I am, three weeks into our program, and loving every minute of it.

Over the next several months, I invite you to join me as I continue to dig at the roots of my teaching self and, hopefully, grow a program that will resonate with others on some level. I would appreciate your insights, feedback, and any experiences you'd like to share that might help me along my way.

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Comments (21)

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Nancy Chandler (not verified)

Fine Arts

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Before pursuing my degree, I was an art student for three years.  As a literature and language arts teacher for middle school students, I try to implement as many art activities as possible into my curriculum.  Often, when a student doesn't excel academically, he/she may possess amazing strengths and talents in the fine arts. Whereas sports is often viewed as an area where a student can gain confidence and self-esteem, I believe musical and artistic ability should be seen as an area of equal importance in the development of a student's well-being. Regrettably, art and music programs are usually the first areas to be cut from a curriculum when budget cuts occur.

Nancy (not verified)

Arts in Daily Curriculum

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Although a middle school teacher for nine years, before pursuing a degree in education, I majored in art for three years. Integrating arts into the daily curriculum is so important, especially in schools where music and art programs have been reduced or cut from the curriculum. Through the ability to participate in the arts, many students discover individual strengths and gain confidence. So often sports is a great motivator for student attendance and achievement; activities dealing with the arts can be viewed in much the same way. I try to implement art into my literature and language arts curriculum whenever possible. I have found that it builds self-esteem in students who often remain unrecognized for academic achievement.

Lavern Settles (not verified)

Novice Teacher vs Expert

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I have been in the school system for 10 years. I have had my very own classroom for 5 of those 10 years. I am not sure what I fall under because I never claim to be an expert in any area but I do hold a lot of knowledge and experience. On that same note I am also learning still new ways to teach and ways to make learning fun for my students.

Julie (not verified)

Novice vs Expert

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As a novice teacher, I feel very overwhelmed with the many expectations society has put on teachers to be experts. I want every child to learn and succeed, but I don't know how to be everything I have to be to make that happen. There are so many good ideas out there. An expert teacher knows content, knows his or her students, can make changes to benefit the students, and has experience to know how to help each and every child. Wanting to be that expert teacher and knowing I have a lot to learn can be frustrating. I want my class now to have the best, and yet I know that because I do not have the experience they are missing out.

Julie Reynolds (not verified)

Opinions: Novice or Experienced?

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In education we have the expert teacher that has been around 15(plus) years and the new teacher with maybe a few years of experience in the classroom. What is your take on the advantages or disadvantages of an expert teacher and the novice teacher? What makes an expert teacher?

Julie Reynolds (not verified)

It is so hard to adapt

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It is so hard to adapt lessons to meet the varying needs of each individual child. It appears that you have adapted your curriculum and learning environment to utilize all of your resources. I am a Kindergarten teacher and feel that sometimes the curriculum required of my students are not developmentally appropriate for each child. Every child learns at a different rate, and for some children, we are pushing them too soon. I am torn between having high expectations for all of my children or am I setting them up for dicouragement and failure?

Heidi Condrey (not verified)

Finding Roots and Implementing Change

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I found this topic to be very inspirational and I can relate with my current situation. I am the education manager for a pre-k program. We are under constant pressures (despite the age ranges we serve) to produce high assessment scores and have our students ready for kindergarten. Consequently, for the last few years our classrooms have become very structured and very academic focused.
Over the summer, I read a book by Michael Gramling entitled, Positive Guidance: Making a Place for Everyone. This book changed me and showed me the way to educate our students in the most developmentally appropriate manner.
We know have classrooms that are very student oriented. The students choose the activities and materials they will work with. The teachers work with individual children when the children are ready. The teachers are the facilitators of learning. Somewhat like the gardener and the plants. Gramlings declarations prompted me to revisit what the students needs are, how they learn, and how effective a classroom could be.

Anonymous (not verified)

What a beautiful way to

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What a beautiful way to state what needs to be happening in our school system. Indeed, living a richer life can only happen by getting back to our "roots!" Good luck to you!

Elizabeth (not verified)

Roots of Change

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Bravo to Mr. Hurley! It is exciting getting back to our roots. Sometimes our teaching practices start out one way and after years, we drift away from our initial enthusiasm. It is good to see someone branching out and revamping what they do. Keep up the hard work! It will be exhausting, but rewarding.

Mitzi (not verified)

Finding Roots

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I am totall in love with your analogy of "finding the roots" to bring about change in education. I would love to be a fly on the wall in your classroom. I am anxious to see how your first year goes. Good luck!

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Stephen Hurley Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman