Gathering for Purpose: Change, Confucius, and
the Moving Vehicle
By JOE BROOKS
For more the past three decades, as the publisher of Community Works Journal, and founder of Community Works Institute, Joe has worked closely with K-16 and community educators from across the U.S. and internationally, in support of community focused teaching that incorporates place-based education, service-learning, and sustainability. email joe
Place Based Service-Learning and educating for Sustainability provide a unique opportunity for making a complete shift in our educational and societal paradigm, at a time when, by nearly everyone's estimation, we need to return to the essential roots of community.
Those roots include finding shared common cause and building a sense of self efficacy among our students, around creating positive social change. But for all of the enthusiasm I encounter in schools for this sort of thinking, there are clearly challenges to doing so. Working recently with university faculty in China, I was struck by both their innate enthusiasm and sense of urgency for this work, coupled with the desire to reconnect with the traditional Confucian ethic of transcendent ideals for society, echoed in these educators' reverence for the work of John Dewey.
If substantive societal change and building sustainable communities best begins with local needs and actions, then what more important place to begin than with local education. Saddled with societal challenges, questionable mandates, sometimes less than desirable community support, and a host of restrictions from finance to class size, many heavily burdened schools—gifted still with teachers and administrators who care—face an old question. Education to what end?
Teachers we work with, public, independent, and community educators alike, are passionately dedicated to both the needs of the individual learner and to nurturing a sense of community in their work. They are generally troubled by the current direction, purpose and focus of education. This feeling seems to be shared across a wide continuum—from early education to graduate school. The educators we interact with are however, generally crystal clear about “What Matters,” as one colleague once put it.
While conversational concerns initially tend to focus on mandates, content overload and testing there is something larger being talked about, something about how students are taught, and what school should really look, feel and be like. The point seems to be education to what purpose? If the formal school experience frames so much of life personally and socially, isn’t the goal of students gaining a sense of community and purpose central to this endeavor?
When the professional is about the personal it is affirming and inspirational.
The experiences of our colleagues in classrooms and programs, as well as those of administrators, strongly suggests that we are not living in a world where scatterings of educators in different buildings or programs with shared teaching values can easily survive intact on their own—not to mention thrive. While we see the challenges that confront all of us in one way or another the real essence of sustaining the work we care about most deeply lies in finding the means to connect and work together. For nearly two decades now Community Works Institute (CWI) has offered our event participants and Journal readers multiple ways to do that. Now we are inviting you our readers to consider being a part of something larger. (One immediate way being to join our new online network) Most important we feel is creating opportunities to share, deepen, and broaden best practice, innovative ideas and curriculum.
The Professional and the Personal
The educators that we work with appear truly renewed and strengthened in their beliefs, energy, and motivation when they are connected to likeminded practitioners pursuing a common purpose beyond innovative content delivery and retrieval. Teachers’ dedication to their profession carries with it a lifetime of experiences and lessons, both professional and personal. We must find ways to tap into the passion each educator carries within themselves—a passion for connected experiences.
When the professional is about the personal it is affirming and inspirational. We witness this again and again as we convene groups of educators. The professional experience that inspires or rekindles the personal must somehow be at the core of what we do—not as a touchy feely experience but as a chance to really work together. It also seems clear that we must create professional development experiences that allow for multiple years of involvement and enable relationships and accomplishments that yield changes of real depth. And, certainly, teachers need experiences that gather and share collective wisdom—evolving models of success if you will. So, not an unattainable vision by any means and one well worth achieving. In fact, it is a vision in dire need of wider scale traction if we are to sustainand broaden the good work already being done by so many teachers, schools, and community based programs.
It’s a bit difficult to immerse students in the heart of the social and natural community if we lack the time and means to be there.
Learning for a Greater Purpose
Indeed, the challenges schools face also strongly impact educators based with community organizations who offer rich opportunities to teachers and their students, the local environmental center being just one such example. These educators provide access to the tools, resources, (and in fact, often the community itself) that can invigorate classroom based study. Time, curriculum integration issues, and scheduling are the most obvious obstacles generally named by both classroom based and so called “nonformal” educators. It’s a bit difficult to immerse students in the heart of the social and natural community if we lack the time and means to be there.
If the challenge is, in general, how do we as teachers, parents, community members, and educational organizations collectively support what many of us see as the heart of education. And if, we define change in this case as creating a much wider learning environment where students reap the benefits of a curriculum connected to people, nature and place—a curriculum suffused with purpose. Then it seems immediately necessary to rethink school as we know it. It seems likewise necessary to support our students’ teachers and administrators with professional development experiences that are curriculum focused, of course, but also ones that provide an ongoing and nurturing collegial experience focused on themes of community.
It is connecting school work to a larger purpose beyond the self that resonates.
Beyond the Self
As we sift themes that revolve around creating and supporting educational experiences that build community and foster meaningful learning experiences, it is connecting school work to a larger purpose beyond the self that resonates. While this is clearly not a goal even hinted at in the bottom line focused federal legislation driving public education, it’s been our experience that most communities do support students experiencing school as an early act of civic participation—especially if that participation is directly connected to academic learning.
The more obviously student achievement is publicly witnessed in that process the better. As a teacher participant in a recent retreat put it, “Kids get that: When you ask what effect did this have, working together, the kids understand that it’s hard to work together, but they get that things happen when you do.”
In our work with teachers from across the globe we’ve found that there is clearly a significant and arguably growing number of educators out there who are deeply committed to this kind of teaching. These educators tell us they have great need for the opportunity to connect with likeminded peers around the themes intrinsic to using community in teaching. Not connecting simply to glean new ideas but rather to actually work together. Not community as some sort of fuzzy warm but nonetheless vague notion, or out-of-the-box curriculum, but community as the crucial organism we are all a part of everyday—using the community as a learning laboratory as Dewey saw it.
This awareness of the need for community-building within the teaching profession itself certainly led to the launching of Community Works Journal in the mid 1990's as a way to create connections and bring this kind of teaching to light. With the Journal now reaching many thousands of educators around the world, the connective conversation has led us to consider how to create more intentional and active opportunities for teachers to support each other.
As we have moved toward deep integration of the principles of place, service, and sustainable communities in our work with educators, it has been clear to us that part of the answer lies in expanding the kinds of opportunities that gather educators—creating community of purpose in the process. Strength in numbers if you will. It seems crucial to find ways to work together in support of shared principles no matter what our geographic distance may be. This has clearly been the spirit each year for the educators from across the U.S. and well beyond who gather at site based events and for CWI's Summer Institutes on Service-Learning. Our goal has been to create a nexus of professional development around the collaboratively held notion of place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, and sustainable communties as the goal.
If any of this sounds like educational jargon think of it simply as students gaining a sense of community and purpose through the school curriculum—especially in content focused classes—by being involved in work that directly affects and beneifts their community. Such curriculum creates an opportunity to enter into other people’s worlds to achieve mutual understanding, broadening each of our definitions of community while supporting deeper engagement with each other as people. This is an excellent way to think about the work that we all need to do together as educators.
“The thinking on my own is possible because of opportunities to run
intellectually deep in the company of others….”
So, what about this business of the personal being part of the professional? One particularly thoughtful teacher shared her thoughts in a post-institute reflection. “Always in the company of students, teachers are not isolated. Students help shape the direction of our work, enriching our ideas and asking big questions, changing our direction when we let them. But we say, ‘Sometimes I feel isolated.’ We need the work of this institute-week to reclaim intellectual endeavor, separate from the constant company of students, and the predictable dynamics of a staff working together through the years.” Fourth grade teacher Sharyl Green, whom we’ve worked with for some years now, then accurately critiqued the one-time institute model. “It reminds me of sitting next to a new person on the airplane, getting into deep, driving conversation over a long flight, then parting company, maybe not even having exchanged names.” Sound familiar? Airplane flight indeed! We can’t expect the collective achievements we are in need of within the limited time frames we are most familiar with.
Along with adequate time is the need for the opportunity for experience-driven intellectual time in an atmosphere of reflective support.
The Moving Vehicle
Changing tires on moving vehicles comes to mind when one thinks of what it takes to actually create change in schools. Any program in motion, especially with the size, scope and complexity of today’s schools makes for tricky business when one considers change. But we have watched entire schools revisit their purpose, including community members in that process. There is generally an acknowledgement that, “this is going to take a few years.” And, yes it is. But we’ve also seen individuals and small groups return from local events or summer we've facilitated enthused and well prepared to gather colleagues and students and begin the work at home.
It is possible to do some of this kind of planning in the course of a week. But for those intent on trying to create substantive change at the institutional level, along with the "simple" need of adequate time is the need for the opportunity for experience-driven intellectual time in an atmosphere of reflective support. During our longer professional development events we use a study group approach (somewhat similar to professional learning communities), a supportive process that is easily transferable with proper guidance to the local setting.
How Do We Get to What Really Does Matter?
The what in What Matters is always strikingly similar to what we’re talking about here—students gaining a sense of community and purpose—the details being in the content of course. Working on institutes and other projects we’ve followed the thread of need with growing perception and commitment. The call from our participants for a wider, deeper professional development experience has echoed each year as events come to a close. So, for the past several years Community Works Institute has been working with our partners to expand and meaningfully connect our respective institutes through conceptual unity, shared strategies and faculty members. The events themselves serve as components of a interwoven whole—multiple opportunities for participants to experience an integrated whole in whatever amount fit their lives and teaching needs.
“The thinking on my own is possible because of opportunities to run intellectually deep in the company of others….”
We are committed to offering educators an opportunity for a multiyear in-depth experience that will significantly impact their teaching practice and best of all, keep them connected. We are also looking at ways to use follow-up events and on-line forums to support these longer term connections. Participating teachers may now “enter” through any of four events, The Education for Sustainability Institute, Community Works' Institute on Service-Learning, and the Principles and Promising Practices of Place-Based Education workshops—finding themselves then able to move laterally through the others in subsequent years.
“…you have to have networks and knowledge, you don’t have to be the only one….”
Sharyl Green continues, “The thinking on my own is possible because of opportunities to run intellectually deep in the company of others, like at the Institute.” With this in mind, we are about creating professional development within an atmosphere of intentional reflection and peer support.
The ostensible reason for educators gathering at these summer institutes may be to gain community ethnography skills or service-learning strategies, integrate principles of sustainability and design curriculum, or to work with digital media. But the underlying purpose remains the same—building community amongst colleagues and new friends and later back home doing work of serious purpose with students.
Each year the collected group attending summer events here has astounded us with their dedication and their desire to move further. It’s also worth noting that not everyone or even most who attend initially appear to be seeking a so-called group experience. That seems to come after landing. Rather, most folks seem to arrive basically intending to reinvigorate, gain new skills and apply them to their curriculum. (The breathtaking summer landscape in Vermont is surely not lost on them either.)
Thrive or Embrace Extinction
One thing we’ve also noticed is that there can be, ironically, an isolating aspect to doing this kind of teaching. This seems to be due in part to what moves certain teachers more than others and perhaps also to the sometimes random ways in which we find our way to particular working locales. But let’s face it, it’s tough (and not particularly healthy) to feel like the community-oriented learning you are offering students is merely a passing experience as they travel through the system. Or, worse, that you’re not necessarily building something that will grow and last. Teachers seem to intuitively know that they need company to change this. The teaching and teachers that we value most are at risk if we cannot find ways to help them connect to each other, broaden their survival skills and assist them in elevating understanding about the importance of their work.
During our recent retreat with former institute participants and faculty members we asked them to help us articulate What Matters. In our challenging conversations about how to make our work—together and individually—more “focused and intentional,” the word “bolder” became a mantra of the weekend. They also returned consistently to the need for working together. “We should emphasize that one person can make a difference, but you have to have networks and knowledge, you don’t have to be the only one. It’s about organizing and making connections. If you work together, you can get things done.”
Other themes which came up included social justice, civics transcending all disciplines; understanding what a community is and what it needs to be sustainable; student voice, expression and creativity; and as one participant put it, “Students making connections across the curriculum, community, state, world—between what they do and what they can do, now and in their future.” What better outcome could we aim for with our students?
“…It wasn’t just ideas, it was action.”
Power in the Group
CWI's Summer Institutes on Service-Learning are now well into their second decade. During this time we’ve been privileged to be a part of many similar reflections, with educators from near and far. Their voices form an incredibly diverse set of experiences and backgrounds. Working with students and adults of all ages in formal and informal settings, these educators are ready and willing to work on the moving vehicle.
Most teachers or administrators cannot afford the luxury of networking with peers if real planning is not taking place. There must be something inherently important to their task at hand to even think of setting a week of their summer aside. What a gift then when both can be accomplished. In the words of Abbie Andrews, a French teacher from New Hampshire, “The Institute reaffirmed my hope that there really are people and organizations out there that are not simply idealistically chipping away at insurmountable challenges to “save the world;” they are methodically, carefully, thoughtfully planning and implementing ways that our communities and environments can survive and sustain. It wasn’t just ideas, it was action.”
We all struggle sometimes to bring tight focus to beliefs, concepts and goals that in the right setting ring clear as a bell. We seem to do this so much better as a group, with the power of the group amplifying the significance of what we truly wish to be about as educators. Each summer the most amazing and dedicated group of individuals experience collective recognition and remember What Matters as they self assemble here for institutes. The words of participants tell us a story and suggest—indeed, demand—a course to chart on a larger scale.
As we learn to talk clearly about What Matters we do so in the belief that there are a vast number of educators out there who do want and need to be connected to something larger than themselves and know that this will invaluably support their work with students. We hope that you the readers of Community Works Journal will join with us in meeting this challenge—common work and common cause.
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