Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot + Back to the Future = New Sue

In my early years of teaching, about every three or four years, I would engage in a summer of renewal of myself as a teacher. After a year during which my shortcomings seemed more often to be leading my interactions with students, I would feel I'd lost perspective and that I wasn't satisfied I was giving the kids my best so I would buy books and read for answers.

During one of those summers about ten years ago, two of the books I read were by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot: The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Courage (1983) and Beyond Bias: Perspective in Classrooms (1978). Before there were mashups or digital story telling, Lightfoot melded old-fashioned story telling with a sociologist's curiosity to find out what makes people and their relationships and the institutions they inhabit tick. She came up with a process sometimes referred to as "human archeology." Start with questions that she was wondering about, she'd find people who were interested in engaging in conversations and then spend a lot of time listening and helping them reveal their stories.

To write her "Portraits," Lightfoot immersed herself deeply in the lives of the people in six different US secondary schools. Before edublogs, Classroom 2.0, and threaded discussions, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot gave a voice to school people and students, to parents and community members in a way that opened the heart of each school to her readers. By becoming part of each school's landscape, she was able to "bust through" the bricks and mortar and the widely held stereotypes of the time and told stories of people struggling to do their best -- some succeeding and others not so much -- but all caring about education and trying to do better.

My copies of Lightfoot's books are in now a box somewhere downstairs, but there is one message that I very clearly recall. Whether it was spoken by a teacher who was interviewed or part of a conclusion drawn by Lightfoot herself, I'm no longer sure -- but it had to do with not taking the stuff that kids do and say personally. Whenever I have lost my way with students, it's almost always because I have forgotten that important bit of guidance.

By the time they arrive at my school, my students have become masterful at finding and pressing all the hot buttons the adults in their lives carry. When I forget that this testing behaviour is their way of trying to assert a little control in a world that threatens to ignore or even drown them -- when I lose the ability to think inside the moment and just react -- that's when I get lost.

At my most vulnerable moments during challenging encounters it's terribly important to maintain enough perspective see that, when acting out, students are actually letting their guard down. They are making themselves themselves vulnerable by inadvertently giving me a glimpse of their deeper selves. When I simply react from a place of feeling misunderstood, overtaxed, unappreciated, or unacceptably challenged, I blow an opportunity to reach out and create a meeting of minds that will lead to greater mutual understanding. I miss a true teachable moment (for them) and a 'learnable' moment (for me).

This transitional year (as I wrote last week) is for me about reflection and regaining a sense of grace. It's about reconnecting with my students, but it's also about taking risks in this old/new role as a student to be a little like my students and ask challenging questions. It's about pushing my personal and professional learning to the limits. It's also about using the feelings I experience from being back in the student role after twenty0 years to better understand my students.

Lightfoot's newest book is entitled The Third Chapter: the Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50. Once again she's apparently telling my story. I can't wait to read the book and find out how I'm doing! Ironically my own "new adventure" is taking me back to earlier roles. (Image is linked.)

My own new risks involve actually trying on behaviours and attitudes I didn't have the confidence to express when I was younger. For the "burn out" Lightfoot speaks of in the video interview below came from an exhaustion of spirit brought on by a life of speaking old scripts that had never really worked for me because they were constructed out of my guesses about the way others wanted me to be. For my whole life I've been trying out behaviours on others and constructing myself out of their reactions. If at fifty-seven, I can't finally just put what I think and feel and believe and want and wonder out there and leave the reacting to others, I never will. Time could be getting short.

Some people after fifty yearn to live out their childhood dreams by buying expensive motorcycles or jumping out of airplanes. They feel "the thrill is gone," and they want it back. Others after a lifetime of meeting other people's needs express a deep need to find out who they really are and may even leave their homes and families to do that. I know that in my case, this finding of my new self can only be accomplished if I redefine myself as a teacher and as a student first. Once that is done, I will be able to close that door knowing that I've given it all I had and taken from it all that I need in order to finally not have to relive the old cycles and relearn the old lessons.

P.S. 2 wishes -- First, I wish I could find the earlier interview that Bill Moyers speaks of in the clip so that we could hear what Lightfoot had to say about schools back in 1983, and second, I wish she had the time to go back to those 6 schools and update her portraits in light of the changes in American education since then. Here's the clip of Bill Moyers interviewing Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. If you want more there is a video of her speaking to a group of colleagues at:

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