Nov 29

Tourism of Our Ideas


img_4311So I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few days in Oslo, Norway, and when I’m not at the SETT conference, I’ve been able to spend some time seeing Oslo. I was talking to one of the conference attendees, and I’ve told him my plans for what I’m going to see, and his answer was, “Well, you’re seeing all the major things to see in Oslo!” But, of course, I’m not. And it’d be ridiculous to assume that I am anything but a tourist here – getting the superficial notion of Oslo with, perhaps, because I’m making the real attempt to watch and listen, a fleeting glimpse of what is really here for the people who know it and live it. That’s just what it means to be a tourist. If I really fell in love with Oslo and wanted to find a way to know it in a real way, I’d find a way to immerse myself. I’d look for a visiting professorship and move here for a year. I’d find a way to live this place in a much more real way, beyond the city square.

img_4223 I was thinking about this idea as I stood on the Oslo Opera House and looked out over the city — and I was struck by the thought that, in education, we too often encourage tourism of the mind. With three hour workshops for teachers to implement complex pedagogical shifts or conference sessions that start, “Everything you need to know about…” or – on a perhaps more dangerous level – fast-track programs toward teacher or principal certifications, we encourage tourism of these ideas, not deep understanding, and then we wonder why implementation so often lags or why – to make the metaphor complete – implementation seems so superficial, so… touristy.

For us to truly innovate and find ways to break down the very real, very entrenched notion of school that exists for too many students, we have to be more than tourists of our ideas. We have to engage in deep study. We have to immerse ourselves.

This isn’t to say, by the way, that the three hour workshop or the conference doesn’t have its use – it does. But it should be a starting point, not an end point. It should be a deepening or a framing of any idea, not the end all and be all. The pedagogies we will need will require us to be scholar-activist teachers. We have to be educators who understand the difference between being the tourist of an idea and the master of it. American education has been plagued by tourist reform — the idea the we can read an article rather than a book, the new program we can learn all about in a three hour workshop, rather than fully and intentionally plan for change. And over and over again, we are shocked when the ideas don’t fully take hold.

It is borderline criminal that we waste that kind of time.

Because whether it is inquiry-driven teaching, restorative practices, project-based learning or any other idea that we may want to leverage to transform our schools and our classrooms, we have to take the time to truly immerse ourselves in that idea if we expect to see the changes be sustained, real and powerful. Otherwise we will be tripped up by the first time it gets hard or goes wrong or just surprises us. We have to be more thoughtful in our embrace of new ideas so that we have a better understanding of what is lost and what is gained. We have to be more deliberate about the structures we set up when we evolve our schools so that innovations are sustainable. We have to be willing to take the time to invest deeply, so that we have a strong sense of the changes that students and teachers will have to make as they take on new ideas as well.

In short – we must be thoughtful, intentional and deeply knowledgable as we seek to transform our schools. We have to be residents of our ideas, not tourists. For me, it is the only path to change.






Nov 23

Guest Post: Some Thoughts on America

[This is an email from a former student of mine from my days as a teacher in New York City. She works as a lawyer in the non-profit world, working with court systems. She sent this to me as part of a longer conversation about how we’re feeling about the world these days, and I thought it made sense — with her permission – to post it here.]

Yesterday I drove over to the court so that I could get my client released to a drug program. I was scheduled to be in a different court that morning. I arrived at the second court around noon and my client was released around 12:45. For the third time this year, I drove her to treatment. Not under any illusion that she would stay in the program, but also not harboring any thoughts about her leaving the program. I’m driving her to another program simply because that’s what you do.

Earlier in the day, at my first court, a good friend, a private lawyer, introduced me to his client as the best lawyer you can’t hire. Feeling sort of melancholy from the post-election hangover, having just advised my undocumented client on the uncertain status of his personhood in the Trump America, I replied in passing that my work is my rent for being a member of the human-race. Being a decent human-being is the cost of admission.

Imagine having to footnote all your legal advice with “but that was under the Obama Administration, no one knows what Trump is going to do”. In six weeks, you, undocumented person standing in front of me, could be a priority for ICE.

I drive my client to the city hospital, a many-storied decrepit building that houses the shelter, Department of Corrections hospital unit, and several health and treatment programs for low-income/homeless populations. I show my bar card to the Haitian Department of Health security guard. We take the elevator up to the 11th floor and are buzzed through the locked doors. The African-American intake coordinator tells me my client’s bed was for tomorrow but I beg, and she relents.

My client is led to the nurse’s area by a woman in a headscarf. I wait at the front desk for my client to complete the admission process and am surrounded by the comings and goings of the thirty or so woman on the unit getting sober. They are from all different races and nationalities. Some are pregnant, others are mothers trying to regain custody, there are grandmothers, there are women getting clean for the first time and women who have spent decades in and out of programs. They’re on their way off the unit for “fresh-air” outside. They call out to one another, their ribbing filling the hall with shouts across rooms.

In all of this landscape I think to myself that this is what is beautiful about America — we are what makes America great. My America is filled with diversity and unified around a singular purpose of making society a better place for having each of us in it, and aside from any anger I feel, I am also sad that there are people who can’t see the beauty in this humanity.

Nov 12

To Educators Who Voted for Donald Trump

Hello from the other side of the aisle,

Thank you for clicking whatever link brought you here. There are some things I need to ask of you now. I’m going to lay out the assumption that I’m making in writing this blog post first, because I think, especially in this time of deep division, that may help us talk to one another.

I know that not every Trump voter is a bigot. I know that people had reasons to vote for Donald Trump that were grounded in belief about issues like the economy, foreign policy, change agency, trustworthiness, a deep belief in the Republican Party, and more. And I trust that if you were willing to click this link, you are one of those people. Thank you for reading with an open mind and an open heart.

What I need to say is that we need you right now. All over this country, we are seeing acts of hate speech, harassment and intimidation. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports over 80 such acts on college and K-12 campuses since Election Day. And that aligns with what I am hearing from friends and former students who are experiencing similar things. In case you haven’t heard of specific examples, here are a few:

And these are but a few. And again, this aligns with stories that I have been hearing from friends and former students from all over the country that aren’t getting reported.

You didn’t mean for this to happen. I know. This isn’t what you wanted when you went into the ballot booth. You care about all the kids you teach, regardless of race, sexuality, religion. You count black children, Muslim children, immigrant children, Jewish children, LGBTQ children among some of the favorites you’ve ever taught.

But this is happening. And it is terrifying. And we all need to come together to stop it.

So I’m asking you for a few things.

  • Make an affirmative statement that your class is a safe space for all children. Here are some examples:
    • This the note that the SLA educators wrote and hung so that every kid saw it as they walked in Wednesday morning. We also read it aloud in our classes and talked about what it meant with all our kids.
    • An English teacher had this note on her door this week for all her kids:
  • Speak out against this. The people who feel most fragile right now need the people who voted for President-Elect Trump to have their backs. Tweet @realDonaldTrump and ask him to speak out against the rise in hate speech in our schools this past week. Contact his transition office by telling your story here. Sign the petition started by a fellow educator asking President-Elect Trump to speak out.
  • And please, don’t minimize this or pretend it isn’t happening, or try to explain it away or say that there are bad things happening on both sides. Not now. The orderly transfer of power to a Trump administration has to mean that our all our children – especially the kids who have been made to feel unsafe this week – have to know that their teachers believe in them and want them to be safe. I have to be honest here. I have spoken to many Trump supporters in the last few days, and I am disheartened by the willingness to explain what is happening away. Please don’t do that.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for what I truly hope will be your action. Thank you for teaching all our children. We have a lot of healing to do as a nation. I hope it can start with all of us in our schools.


Chris Lehmann