I recently ran across Australian educator and blogger Andrew Douch’s account of the “best school [he’s] ever seen.” North Beaches Christian School in Terrey Hills, near Sydney, sounds idyllic, right down to the acoustically clever ceilings that keep noise levels down. I’d like to see this place.
And it reminded me of an experience I had last month, seeing what might be the best class I’ve ever seen. Really.
What I witnessed was a seventh/eighth-grade humanities class at Oak Meadow Montessori School in Littleton, Massachusetts. The students were getting started reading Antigone, but teacher Karen Kelley is all about pushing the human, the personal side of student understanding, and so she was getting the students revved up to explore the moral questions raised by Sophocles by having asked them, as homework the night before, to take a favorite character in literature, film, or even television and decide where that character might fall on the scale of Laurence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. They’d already spent class time talking about Kohlberg’s work.
If I thought the approach was cool and likely to be fruitful (and I sure did), I was blown away by the kids’ responses. In a seminar that would be the envy of anyone working at a Harkness table or even plenty of graduate school literature professors, students took the discussion ball and ran with it: politely, smartly, each kid fully engaged and fully immersed in the learning. I heard kids talk about the moral development of SpongeBob SquarePants, Ferris Bueller (and Dean Rooney), and both sides of the Syrian conflict; one girl made the anguished observation that a character she deeply admires—Katniss from The Hunger Games—isn’t really very far along, and “it makes me really sad to have to admit this.” With only minor clarifications and gentle probing from their teacher, the students created a discussion that was lively, balanced, and intellectually and even affectively provocative. They kids listened to one another and pretty clearly worked to understand where their classmates were coming from, as we used to say. Unlike so many seminars I have seen (and occasionally taught), no one felt to need to prove himself or herself the winner. Everybody won.
It was beautiful. I replayed the class in my head for days, and I couldn’t find a flaw. Even when the last couple of kids, who I thought were hanging back, finally jumped into the conversation, it was with full energy and engagement; they’d just been waiting for their moment to say their piece, and then they were off to the races with the rest. For years I’ve had an echo in my head of an old review of Bruce Brown’s 1966 film The Endless Summer, in which a couple of surfers travel the world in search of “the perfect wave.” The review called it “the perfect movie.” I think I may have seen the perfect class.
And that would be the end of it: a very happy memory, a standard against which I can measure other classes in other schools in years to come. It sure gave me enormous respect for Karen Kelley and the school and the kids; whether it was the pervasively positive and engaged school culture or some result of the Montessori-infused curriculum at the younger grades, there’s something good happening at Oak Meadow.
But, I have come to realize, it may be that the days of such classes are numbered, even in small, close-knit independent schools like Oak Meadow.
Missing from this ideal class were many of the bells and whistles of “21st-century learning.” There was no technology, no instant accessing of Wikipedia or social media via iPad or smartphone. There was no project or problem, per se, no making or fabricating to be done, just kids with a photocopied summary of Kohlberg and the first pages of Antigone. There was no formal collaboration to be done, no roles in the group that needed to be assigned or played. It was all face to face, fingers running over the texts to find the evidence.
The collaboration on display was whole-class, and virtuosic from the teacher to the quietest kid—the platonic ideal of the “guide on the side” model of education. The energy was kid energy, all the way, and it was beautiful and bumpy and smart and naïve and insightful and revelatory in all the best ways that middle school education can be those things. In the course of the discussion not only were ideas connected, so were human beings.
But it was, in fact, about as Old School as could be. It would be all too easy to imagine a new regime swooping in and replacing the xeroxes with laptops, the discussion with a Skype conference with a class in some other school, far away. It might even be that old school stuff like Kohlberg, whose work has been subject to time’s critique, might be deemed irrelevant, perhaps in some way not quite politically correct or, worse, too complex and sophisticated for thirteen-year-olds. And what about Antigone? Isn’t there some juicy, dark Newbery medal book that can pose the same challenges and issues but in a more relevant, more contemporary context? Can’t we do the same things online, but leveraging economies of scale in a much larger, more cost-effective class?
The zeitgeist of our moment makes such dystopian thinking all too easy, and despite whatever else I might say here about contemporary and forward-thinking approaches to education—and I’m a fan—I will never stop believing that there must always be a central place in our schools for such discussions, such live action give and take, in a context that looks, sounds, smells, and feels like a place of real kids and real, smart, creative teachers. If we can figure out how to recreate online or using other texts what Karen Kelley and her students achieved, fine (I guess; I’d have to see it before I would believe it could be done).
But what I saw in that classroom was above all innovation—innovation in a juxtaposition of texts that asks students not just to read and think and talk but also to understand and even judge characters from a heightened and morally and intellectually informed perspective. And innovation is about ideas first, not gadgets. I fear that in an age of so much material change, it is easy for us to forget that, and fail to see or appreciate true excellence when we’re staring it in the face.
It all made me believe all the harder that we have to protect and honor great teaching and outstanding learning, even when the individual elements look quite familiar. Let’s not lose such quiet, pure, stunningly perfect educational moments.