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Words from the Sup't: Dr. Rod Rock

Good education's like a successful fishing trip

June 22, 2011 - Picture in your mind a summer afternoon in your youth, fishing on a lake with your grandfather.

You're in a small boat, with no engine. You are using bamboo poles. Grandpa is wearing a large, strawbrimmed hat, with fishing lures pinned to it, and a collared shirt. You're fishing with earth worms – the big, dirty, slimy variety. In the stillness of the day, you hear in the distance a screen door slamming, but you can't see it.

The water is warm, as is the air. The sun is dimming to the West, over the woods on the other side of the lake. You and grandpa aren't talking. The fish are biting. A hefty one bites your line — the one you've waited all day to catch. Your line breaks. As grandpa ties a new line onto your pole, the hook lies precariously in the water, and a fish bites it.

Simultaneously, you and grandpa gasp. You catch a glimpse into his eyes and you can clearly sense the significance of the moment — that something extra special is happening there on the lake. There are no words to describe the feeling, only a sense of the essence. No one else can tell you how it feels, no matter the eloquence of the words. A picture or written account of the experience is somehow insufficient. Even long after grandpa is gone, the feeling persists — you want to live it again.

An education, lived in small moments, embedded in genuine relationships, and personally significant, is what we hope our children will experience. We wish for our children challenges, meaningful friendships, limitless opportunities, and utter hopefulness. We build gymnasiums, stadiums, band rooms, science labs, auditoriums, and classrooms because we believe in the educational process.

We install computers, wireless networks, and outlets because we have faith in educational systems.

We set policies, goals, proficiency targets, and standards because we believe that these elements, taken collectively, represent the best possibilities for a better life, for all children. Once we've constructed the schools, the paint and asphalt dry, and the students move in. They sit behind desks, poised for learning.

What happens next isn't up to them, it's dependent upon us—teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, schools of education, parents, community members—working together to ensure a meaningful educational experience. Each student possesses his or her dreams, and our hopes. Each is completely individual, yet wholly dependent.

Picture in your mind a fall afternoon in the current life of a young girl. Can you see the student, sitting in a classroom with her classmates and teacher?

It's a well lit room, with a Smartboard. The teacher is comfortably dressed, with a dry erase marker behind her ear. She invites the child to share her thoughts, to explore her ideas, to make connections, to wonder. She then gives the students time to think; to develop their thoughts.

Despite the equal eagerness of those around, the student's concentration does not waiver or wane. She's leaning forward in her seat, anxious, yet willing to hold her response until her thoughts become clear. The teacher displays on the Smartboard colorful pictures and diagrams, asking students to take a position, to expand their perspectives. As the students reason with evidence, the teacher asks them to go deeper, to contemplate an alternative point of view. In their hands are cell phones with

Internet access, which they skillfully use to explore the complexity of the topic at hand. Near the end of the class period, the teacher asks the students to gather into small groups with classmates to summarize their learning for the period. In ten words or less, the young girl's group reflects on the learning objective displayed for the entire class period, on the Smartboard. When it is almost time to depart for lunch, the teacher selects this group to share their summary.

Simultaneously, the girl, her classmates, and the teacher gasp. The girl catches a glimpse into her teacher's eyes, and she can clearly sense the significance of the moment; that something extra special is happening there in her classroom—the group's collective thinking is going much deeper than expected. There are no words to describe the feeling, only a sense of the essence. No one else can tell her how it feels, no matter the eloquence of the words. A picture or written account of the experience is somehow insufficient. Even long after she's completed her formal education, the feeling persists—she wants to live it again.

As we attempt to reform education with policies, charter schools, teacher evaluation and student achievement, and merit pay—the impersonal parts, we risk missing the essence—the personal whole.

We believe that improvement is simple, direct, clean, and obvious. Our educational systems have taught us that academic growth is always measurable, quantifiable, and comparable. Herein, we miss the complexity, the nuance, the essence.

To fundamentally improve schools for all children, we must alter the way it feels—for students, teachers, parents. In its entirety, we must make learning personally meaningful.

We must do all that we can, every day, in every school, to take students more deeply into their own minds and the minds of their classmates. We must teach them to make sense, to figure things out, to inquire and expand. We must make learning a more personal, organic, intuitive, qualifiable endeavor.

When we talk about education, long after we've left the schoolhouse, we must remember how it feels—longing to live it again. Tangibly, we have to recall where the learning took us, what it taught us about ourselves and learning in general. It has to affect us deeply, personally, longitudinally. Any policy or reform that does not affect how students and educators feel, what they sense and notice, is in fact, no reform at all.

Rod Rock, Ed.D., is superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools

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