Thursday, August 28, 2014

And So to Be...

After twenty years or so designing, teaching, and evolving a class based upon the principles of design and reading the world, I've decided to accept an offer from my district to teach English to gifted freshman and sophomores.  The decision wasn't easy.  My life's work was in moving my thinking and ideas away from purely text-based interpretations of the world.

Yes, I was an English major, but after spending the majority of my adult life looking at art, discussing objects, and understanding the way in which we have conceived of and constructed the built environment...after digging in to the way our world is full of texts beyond those written in words, well, it's hard to imagine why I might have decided to switch back to the comfort of books, back to a class that is solidly in the "core" of educational content.

The main answer to that question is that when I inquired as to the district's vision  for this class, their response began with the word "different."  Furthering my line of inquiry, I was told that I would still be allowed to travel to the design conferences I planned on attending, that I could travel to visit schools that had bought into design as a powerful educational tool--places like Design-Lab High in Wilmington, Delaware (not yet open, but soon), The Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, and numerous other places in the Tri-state (and beyond) area that are using design-based methods to engage students and offer them a different way of approaching learning in all disciplines.

And it is in that allowance for design that I found my point of departure.

Design, because it is integrative in nature, presents a way for educators to reunify a schooling (high-school, really) experience that has, for so long, been broken into different disciplines.  To make matters worse, the cognitive boundaries such a system creates are reinforced physically in the architecture of the school--Science in science halls,  English in English halls, etc.

This is not a new complaint, I know, and numerous initiatives have grown up trying to reunify the curriculum.  I actually just finished a book on teaching philosophy in the high school that makes the claim that philosophy can reunify the curriculum (and I think it can).

But design has the added hands-on dimension that moves learning from thinking to doing.  In that aspect of physically manifesting our thought in more ways than simply writing or doing math problems, we move our thoughts and learning out of our heads into the world and, in so doing, exert ourselves upon the world.  The act of designing, then (to which most art teachers will attest), moves us from thinking, to doing, to being.  And it is this move that so excites me about the possibilities for design-based education.

Ideally, though, moving into a new curriculum, having to relearn how to be an English teacher while still trying to innovate in a design-based way...this will take time.  And I am an impatient man who is unwilling to throw away 20 years of his career to move back to being a simple "English teacher."   (Not that being an English teacher is simple, it is just that I'm not an English teacher only anymore.)

Thus, this year for me will be a year of designing.  I will begin with empathy for my students, what they need and want, and how I can design a course to meet that while still being mindful of the constraints of the system and its demands...demands I was able to buck for years.

With breaks for all the work I'll be doing and the Gifted Individualized Education Programs I will be writing, I will try to blog my experience in designing this class on these pages.  I hope to have far more successes than failures, but as this class is, in certain ways, a prototype, I'll defer to what designers always say:

"Fail early, and fail often."

So is to failures and the successes born of them.

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