Also published at TCDailyPlanet:
Here’s a secret parents and policymakers haven’t heard. Last week, while most educators were scrambling to stuff last-minute lessons in before summer break some Burnsville, Minnesota teachers bucked the system (just a bit) for big-picture sake.
They are admittedly anxious about peers who aren’t making the grade. And budget cuts so brutal some gifted peers (whose salaries tend towards higher end humble-income scales) will lose jobs to un-tested (not to say un-gifted) others who can be hired for humbler compensation.
They aren’t usually rules-breakers, nonetheless these teachers risked the wrath of administrators to achieve the unthinkable in these teach-to-the-test times. By actually setting aside precious instruction time for students to slow down, look one another in the eyes and teach each other about themselves.
The outcomes of their unplanned innovation won’t fit current rubrics. Because it was experiential—the kind high-tell curricula can’t teach and short-sighted tests can’t measure. The method had students paired with another student they scarcely knew to discover differences and find similarities.
For example: a creative, kinetic suburban-raised middle-class Christian white girl and a big, gentle black immigrant Muslim-raised boy currently living in Section-8 housing discussed their diverse backgrounds and unique characteristics, as well their shared tastes for sugary snacks, fears of spiders and life with single-parents.
More lastingly, they negotiated a “Shared Values” plan, complete with mutual accountability strategies and “How we’ll know we’ve succeeded” measurement criteria. The pro-social ideal they settled on was to “respect people who are different.”
The exercise opened these students’ developing minds to new perspectives.
Taking time with someone seemingly distanced by circumstances, if not character, opened their eyes to how much in reality they have in common. While reflecting back to each of them the hidden reality of their own personal characters, realities usually undermined by narrow definitions of acceptable norms. Most delightfully, they experienced how good it feels to seek some “classmate common-good.”
Achievement-minded leaders of academic and public administrations might consider the social studies implications. Similar lessons could be learned by adults possessed of enough ego-strength to check biases’ and break a few rules.
With ubiquitous proof that short-sighted agendas have failed, some are scrambling to be early adapters of emerging co-productive methods.
For example: asked how leaders can succeed with such mutually constructive efforts Mark Ritchie tried to answer what he called “not only the 64 million-dollar but the 994 million-dollar question” at an event for his reelection as Minnesota Secretary of State. During what is cooking up to be a campaign season threatening to scorch not only politicians’ personal reputations but engulf the embers of piping-hot citizen’s movements organizing against failed political strategies.
Ritchie gave a thoughtful and lengthy reflection on the importance of political leaders engaging the interests and energies of all—not only dedicated supporters and even diverse constituents—but each other, as well. The latter, he admitted, is challenging.
But not unthinkable. He cited as proof Minnesota’s history of cross-partisan cooperation, and his own recent efforts connecting in person with peers who’ve long held very different political perspectives.
In reality, such personal relationships have long strengthened neighborhoods, churches and public spaces where people from wide spectrums of experiences and perspectives gather and engage in community.
Their secret? Only when people risk precious time together learning about one another can unique characteristics and shared values begin to be understood, perhaps even adapted together.
With luck, such relational lessons can produce the change two students in Burnsville have agreed to achieve. Let’s hope us parents and policymakers get it, too.
If so, we can restore our cultural esteem—and reclaim our human right to self-respect.