In this
, Chris Thinnes movingly describes his reaction to
the first national conference of the Network for Public Education.
Most powerful to me was his reference to the absence of hierarchy.
All of us–students, parents, educators, citizens, old, young–met
as equals. It was, from all accounts, a great and empowering
experience. The words I heard often were, ” I am so glad to know
that I am not alone.” All of us left feeling stronger. I am going
to break a rule here. I so much enjoyed reading Chris’s reflections
that I am going to publish them in full. But I want to “drive”
traffic to his blog, so I urge you to open the link so you can see
his photos, especially the one of Deborah Meier engaging student
activists. What Chris saw and felt is what we all saw and felt:
Democracy in action. A promise of an educational spring. Read and
enjoy: Reflections on the first national conference of the Network
for Public Education Austin, March 1-2, 2014 An #EducationSpring in
Our Step: Reflections on the First National #NPEconference Chris
Thinnes I’m back! I’m back! I’m back!… Get up offa that thing And
try to release that pressure.. Ha! Good God! So Good! – James Brown
Sisters and brothers, Don’t settle for the okey-doke. – Karen Lewis
At some point I began to realize it might be nuts to take this on:
I presented with a panel last Friday afternoon in Orlando at the
NAIS annual conference, was presenting with another panel the
following Monday morning in L.A. at the CAIS Southern Regional
Meeting, and on a gut feeling several weeks beforehand, I’d made
the out-of-pocket decision (or, rather, the
out-of-my-family’s-pocket decision) to spend the Friday night
through Sunday afternoon in between at the first national
conference of the Network for Public Education. Standing outside
the Austin airport at 11pm on Friday night, it really hit me. I was
tapped out from sleepless nights at the conference in Orlando (I’m
useless without my family), cynical about the direction of my
national organization, tired of
lecturers-lecturing-against-lecturing, and uncertain about my own
capacities and credibility to make a difference in my school, in my
profession, and in my world. I’ve been in one of those phases where
it has simply not been enough – personally, professionally, or
emotionally — to “plant dates” or to endure a “season of design.”
And, to the ostensible point of the NPE conference, I remain
infuriated – and, problematically, little more than infuriated,
because my dispositions to depression and paralysis don’t afford
me, personally, the luxury of unmitigated fury — by a continual
assault on public education by politicians, corporations, and
philanthropists who, as Naomi Klein puts it, are “part of a
movement that prays for crisis the way that drought-struck farmers
pray for rain.” And then I realized, waiting outside baggage claim
for the promised yellow bus with the NPE logo to take me to the
conference hotel – that, at some point, somebody would ask me where
I worked. And I would have to, need to, get to tell them that I
worked in a private school. My misplaced fear of their reaction was
something I hadn’t entertained before; why, I don’t know. But it
made me, for a moment, want to scramble back into the terminal and
beg for a transfer to L.A. I felt like I’d made a reckless,
presumptuous, and arrogant decision to step into somebody else’s
space. And yet I went down deeply, for whatever reason, for
intuition; trusted my earlier and less sleep-deprived
decision-making; and boarded the bus to see what would happen. This
turned out to be, perhaps, the best decision I’ve ever made for my
own professional learning, my discovery of what it means to be
engaged in my profession, and my decisions about my future path in
schools. All great learning, in my opinion, is relational. And the
energy of the NPE conference – or, to put it more accurately, the
relationships and community at the NPE conference – were
restorative, inspiring, and empowering in a way I’ve found no other
professional gathering in recent memory to be. What I really
needed, more than I could have realized, was some “Circle Time.”
And it was “circle time” I got. Some time ago, I wrote about the
impact of Ken Robinson’s recognition of the impact of education
‘reform’ in the United States, and his invitation to a mindset
moving forward: ‘The Education System’ is not what happens in the
anteroom to Arne Duncan’s office, or in the debating halls of our
state capitals. ‘The education system’ is the school they go to. If
you are a school principal, you are ‘the education system’ for the
kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are ‘the education
system’ for the children in your classroom. And if you change your
practice — if you change your way of thinking — you change the
world for those students. You change ‘the education system.’ And if
enough people change, and they’re connected in the way they change,
that’s a movement. And when enough people are moving, that’s a
revolution. It was in precisely this revolutionary, democratic
spirit, that I witnessed a shared vision of both active
interruption, and generative action, build over the course of these
days in Austin. This was perhaps best expressed, though surely not
only expressed, in John Kuhn’s call to conscience and to action on
Saturday afternoon: Teachers and students have suffered for years
under the burden of increasingly onerous state and federal
education policies, a prevailing culture of teacher- and
student-blaming, and a seemingly relentless campaign to reduce
resources while increasing expectations. We must remind ourselves
that we have the power to determine the future of education in the
United States. When educators and the educated are empowered,
reform doesn’t happen to them, it happens because of them. Today,
with groups like this one and so many others, all of which are
active in so many ways, in so many parts of the country, we are
standing on the threshold of the Education Spring. That sound you
hear getting louder is called student voice, and it’s called
teacher voice… Much has been written in reflection on the
#NPEconference by others more capable, and quicker to the draw,
than I: I’ve been letting this experience wash over me for several
days as I’ve played frantic, and selfish, catch-up with the balls I
dropped while I was away. You mustn’t miss the extraordinary
speeches by Karen Lewis and John Kuhn, the closing keynote by Diane
Ravitch, the exciting dynamics of a panel on the Common Core, a
restorative and inspiring panel of student activists, or the call
for congressional hearings on which note the conference drew to its
conclusion. You mustn’t miss the tweets you can still call up under
the #NPEconference hashtag, which was Twitter’s top trending tag on
Saturday and Sunday, and which recorded a vigilant, faithful, and
inspiring stream of commentary from the extraordinary workshops,
panels, and roundtables that had been convened by the conference
organizers. But I want to reflect on the conference from a more
personal, perhaps more emotional, and potentially more
self-indulgent perspective. I want to explore some patterns that I
noticed, and some dynamics I found inspiring, in the community of
#NPEconference participants. These had a profound impact on me that
I’m likely to explore in the weeks and months to come: they helped
restore, and to create anew, a faith that we can ensure – precisely
by recognizing the nature and the impact of these dynamics in our
community, and in our solidarity — the fulfillment of a vision
framed most eloquently by my dear friend Peter Gow: “We want to see
democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and
fruit of American education.” 1. RETHINKING HIERARCHY: LEADERSHIP
AS SERVICE AND SUPPORT I was struck immediately, upon arriving at
the conference hotel around midnight, by the vaguely familiar face
of a pleasant-seeming woman darting around the lobby attending to a
variety of chores. We caught each others’ eyes, introduced
ourselves, told stories about our excitement, and I offered my help
if any was needed. Only after we engaged in conversation did I
realize this was NPE board member Robin Hiller – who, over the
course of the next few days, welcomed me into myriad conversations
about the conference experience with Phyllis Bush, Coleen Wood, and
other NPE board members who were every bit as approachable,
engaging, and just plain excited by the nature of this shared
experience as any other participant. I was struck, from that moment
forward, by the absence of any conventional, traditional, or
familiar notion of ‘hierarchy’ in the ranks of conference
organizers, presenters, and participants. Recognizing and extending
that spirit, I had and took the opportunity to thank Leonie Haimson
for her example in navigating the tensions between private and
public schools in her own life and work; to thank Bob Peterson for
his extraordinary work with Rethinking Schools that has been such
an influence on me; to thank Diane Ravitch for her support and
suggestions while I was navigating some difficult communication
last year; to thank Deborah Meier for advice she’d shared months
ago about how to bridge differences; and to thank Anthony Cody for
encouraging me to come, when I wasn’t certain that I should. I
mention these interactions not to drop names or to curry favor, but
to note that each of these amazing people was every bit as
interested in extending our conversation – to be helpful to my
experience, to offer theirs in service, and to learn from my
experience — as I was. That I should find this amazing is, in
itself, a revelation — but I am simply not familiar with quite this
degree of engagement in a relational dynamic liberated completely
from the dynamics of prestige and power that tend to frame
interactions in these kinds of spaces. When I think of such a
leveling of the field of ‘authority’ I think of Peter DeWitt, a
tirelessly devoted school leader, education writer, and activist
whom I’ve grown to think of as a friend as well. From one lens – a
lens ground as much by my own self-doubt, as by any honest
assessment of my value and my suspicions about world views — I have
only to learn from his great experience, insight, courage and
example – and yet he went out of his way, as he has done before, to
create a space for us to engage and to learn with each other. His
interest in extending our conversation seemed governed only by our
affinity for ideas and for action – and not at all by our relative
experience or accomplishments – in the purest demonstrations of
friendship and solidarity for their intrinsic value. He and his
mother even offered me a ride back to the airport on Sunday
afternoon – and, recognizing that his inner eighth grader and mine
could really have caused some trouble in junior high – I thanked
her for putting up with him all these years. Perhaps the best
example of what I noticed about the spirit of leadership at the
#NPEconference – which moved me to tears, for whatever reason, just
before Anthony Cody also moved me to tears with his own – was a
moment in between sessions in which Deborah Meier spent some
private time affirming the incredible efforts of student leaders
like Hannah Nguyen, Stephanie Rivera, Israel Munoz, and two
representations of the Providence Student Union, alongside Jose
Vilson, who was about to facilitate an incredible panel drawing on
their efforts and examples: I felt a little voyeuristic snapping a
picture, but I wanted to memorialize the tone and tenor of such
moments. I’m going to take it on the power of their facial
expressions and body language to me, that you’ll understand the
power and the strength of such moments, and such dynamics, for you.
because if I don’t state it clearly, it will imply something
entirely different than I intend. So here goes: I have, for some
time, been deliberately studying the ways that white men –
particularly those vested with authoritative roles and rights that
extend even beyond their white privilege, and their male privilege
— understand their presence and their impact in conversational
dynamics and in space. I do this purposefully in an effort to
explore – sometimes helpfully, and sometimes ham-handedly – my own
identity, responsibility, and opportunity as a white man, as a
school leader, as a parent, as a partner, as a friend, and as a
citizen. Sometimes this presents itself in relatively banal and
mundane examples worth noting – the dude last night in the movie
theater, for example, who splayed his arms across the armrests on
both sides of his seat, stared over at my phone before the movie
started to take a peek at my twitter stream, and offered his
audible commentary to his friend throughout the coming attractions.
And sometimes this presents itself in profound examples of people
who understand the significance and symbolism of the space they
occupy, the meaning of the boundaries they presume to cross, and
the impact of the things they say on others. Recently at the
Project Zero conference in Memphis, I was struck by the example of
Rod Rock, Superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools, who was
only too content to support the leadership of a principal who
co-facilitated their workshop, and the learning of participants
who’d gathered to exchange their ideas, by listening. “Listening”
sounds simple, and innocuous enough, but what I’m talking about is
a kind of active listening that intentionally elevates the
contributions of others above the inclination to influence, to
alter, or to question those contributions. The kind of listening
that doesn’t respond to the notes that people play as good chords,
or as bad chords, but simply as unexpected chords. We do not often
see that in our leaders. And yet I saw this regularly in the
dispositions, behaviors, and actions of leaders at the NPE
conference – men and women, white folks and people of color,
‘management’ and ‘labor,’ young and old. And the personal
preoccupation I described with white male identity drew me
emphatically to the examples of white men in leadership roles who
the defy prevailing examples of white men in leadership roles. In
the same spirit as my example above, I offer this image of
Principal Peter DeWitt and Superintendent John Kuhn, alongside
co-panelist and Superintendent H.T. Sánchez: I was taken by the
purposeful efforts they made – at this instant, and in many others
like it over the course of our time in Austin — to really hear and
to honor the contributions of others; the authenticity of their
responses to questions, even and especially when they presented
them with a challenge; their willingness to take steps back in
order that others might take steps forward; and their seeming
preference to defer to the insight and experience of others, in
order that they might learn themselves. Imagine what could happen –
in and among our schools, and in the public discourse about them –
if our extended conversations and collective decision-making were
framed by such an ethos. 3. FACILITATION AS ACTIVE INCLUSION
Naturally our capacity – in the immediate relationships of our
personal and professional lives, and the collective dynamics of a
shared effort to support all our nation’s children – depends on
more than our resistance or repudiation of dynamics that limit
teacher, students, and parent voice. We need urgently to challenge
the dynamics of hierarchy, prestige, and privilege that have
seemingly determined who should have the most influential voices in
a national conversation, and we need actively to recognize and to
challenge our own dispositions to marginalizing the input of others
who may not share, or who may not have a space to share, their
views. But we also need to make active, purposeful, intentional,
conspicuous, and fierce efforts to create a space for other people
and ideas. We need to develop active facilitation and inclusion
skills alongside those interruption and resistance skills with
which we may be more practiced. To that end, words cannot describe
the influence on me of Jose Vilson’s example. There’s a lot that
has inspired me in Jose’s work, and a lot that has made me dig
deeper in the healthiest kinds of ways, over the time I’ve been
familiar with him. But at the NPE conference I got to see him do
his thing in a real-life situation for the first time. In the first
case, I watched him quietly, respectfully, and clearly create and
protect a safe and productive space for the contributions of
exceptional student leaders: He did so not just by lauding the
efforts of these brave young activists, but by creating a structure
of adult participation that limited our inclination — no matter how
noble or well-meaning our intentions might be — to steer or shape
the conversation. He did so by noticing the impact of our responses
(applause, silence, commentary) on the dynamics of the
conversation, and by providing subtle cues to adults that helped us
co-create an inclusive space. He did so by gently and respectfully
pushing two student participants’ thinking further – not at all to
question or to critique that thinking, but to lure these students’
wisdom past the threshold of their nerves, and to give their
insights the wings of words that might carry us all further forward
in our recognition, support, and deference to authentic student
voice in the months and years to come. He did it again during a
Common Core panel with several other extraordinary participants,
but in a different way. In that context, he managed to create a
space for voices and dynamics that are rarely present in such
conversations — either about the ‘standards,’ or the high-stakes
testing and evaluation schemes with which they are inextricably
intertwined. Jose insisted, through his words and through his
example, that we examine the implications and impact of education
policy and politics through the lens of race and ethnicity; that we
deconstruct and challenge the facile assertions of some
policymakers and pundits that they are fighting for “the civil
rights issue of our time;” and that we recognize and honor the
many, many thousands who won’t have a seat at a table until and
unless we demand and create a shared, inclusive, respectful, and
honest Common Conversation. – – – To make a long story short –
though I suppose that’s absurd to suggest after all this
carrying-on of mine – I can’t help but wonder what will happen when
– not ‘if,’ but when – the dynamics of relational learning,
community, solidarity, and inclusion I witnessed in Austin begin –
not just in pockets, and not just in gatherings such as these – to
inform the national conversation about education in this country.
The increasing trepidation of neoliberal reformers in recent weeks
suggests an unprecedented moment of vulnerability, if not of
welcome; the swelling resistance of students, teachers, and parents
throughout this land bespeaks the turn, if not the time, of real
change; the power of this experience demonstrates, by example, the
inevitable impact of our efforts to reclaim the national
conversation, to restore our collective sanity, and to reinvigorate
a collective and inclusive insistence that our schools should be
the laboratories and the proving grounds of our democracy. As Diane
Ravitch concluded her keynote, with words that were both
inspiration and confirmation for us all: “The walls of Jericho will
come tumbling down…. Blow your trumpets. Wake the town. Tell the
people. “It’s a well known-saying, but I never tire of reading it
or writing it: Margaret Mead says, “Never doubt that a small group
of individuals can change the world. That’s the only thing that
ever has.” “We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places
for teaching and learning – not profit centers for corporations,
and entrepreneurs, and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. “We are
many, and they are few. And this is why we will win.” – – – You can
follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @CurtisCFEE