Recently, I had an opportunity to present about what I do to a group of professional educators from across the state at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe. For those unfamiliar with SJC, it is a liberal arts college located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Santa Fe. They also have a sister school in Annapolis MD. SJC is unique in many respects, most notably in that they teach a proscribed curriculum consisting of “great books.” There are no grades at SJC, and teachers are called tutors. Their aim is to create truly literate students who actively engage in the thinking and learning process.
Each year SJC sponsors Tecolote, a colloquium of professional educators who get together 4 times throughout the school year to discuss readings which are centered around a specific topic. This year’s topic was “What is learning,” and I, along with my principal, Kimberlee Hanson, and several of our students, was fortunate enough to deliver the lunch-time presentation. It went really well, and there was nary a dry eye in the house, including my own. The following is excerpted from what I said. For some it will be a refresher on what I do and where I do it. For the uninitiated, it should serve as a good primer on my current job:
What is Learning?
The impetus for volunteering for this suicide mission actually came out of Salvatore Scibona’s excellent essay (click to read his essay), which we received last semester as a supplemental read. In it, Mr. Scibona describes his lackluster high school experiences and his transformation, after attending St. John’s, into someone who is truly literate. In particular, I was struck by his concluding lines, “In retrospect, I was a sad little boy and a standard-issue, shiftless, egotistical, dejected teen-ager. Everything was going to hell, and then these strangers let me come to their school and showed me how to read. All things considered, every year since has been a more intense and enigmatic joy.”
It got me to thinking about the school where I teach and of which you just got a small taste. I, too, teach students how to read, albeit in a more literal way than St. John’s taught Salvatore how to read. If some of you have glanced through the article in front of you, you may have noticed that 19% of inmates in the U.S. are totally illiterate and 40% are functionally illiterate.
Most of my students come to me with somewhere between a 1st and a 3rd grade reading level, so I actually do in point of fact teach them to read. And I couldn’t be prouder of that fact. The gentleman in the clip you saw with whom I’m working came to me unable to write down his name on his application for school, but ironically he had acquired over 20 credits in APS, most of them in special education. I believe he had just made it to the 3rd grade reading level in the video clip. Though many of my students go on to read at a collegiate level, working with Orlando was a real pleasure for me because I could see his burgeoning literacy take root right in front of my eyes.
Before I talk a little more about what I’ve noticed about learning at GBCS, I thought I’d take a moment and “educate” you about some of the particulars of our school. Last week in tutorial, someone mentioned NCLB, and Victoria (our turtor) was utterly befuddled. I realized then that IEP, NCLB, GPA, LD, BD and 504 plans have been replaced in my life with MDC, CO, Pod, CCP, UA and PO, so I thought it might help if we all had some common terminology and logistical information under our belts.
MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center) sits on the west mesa above Albuquerque. It has a terrific view of the Sandia, Manzano, Jemez, Sangre de Cristo, and Ladrone mountains, though few of the inmates know that because they typically arrive and depart under the cover of darkness and none of the rec. yards has a view of anything other than the sky.
MDC differs from prison in that inmates there are either serving short-term sentences, are awaiting trial and/or sentencing, or are in the process of being transferred to prison to serve longer term sentences. MDC’s structure is militaristic with CO’s (correctional officers) holding ranks. There are officers superior to the CO’s ranging in rank from Sergeant to Chief. The jail is divided into units, and each unit contains 8 pods, which house upwards of 90 inmates. Ironically, the riots in the prison just outside of this city sparked a major redesign of prisons nationwide, so instead of rows and rows of barred cells, the pods have a large open area where inmates are usually allowed to spend most of their days. One CO oversees the pod and a Sally Port (a double locked foyer) allows entrance and egress from the pod. The school classrooms are in the main corridor that forms an inner circle within the unit. There is a cadre of administrative offices deeper still in an area called the core. Our classrooms are not patrolled or manned by CO’s.
When thinking about what I wanted to say about learning for this presentation, a couple pieces of Dewey really jumped out at me. One was the section in which Dewey addresses the question the Greeks raised, that is, “How can we learn? For either we know already what we are after, or else we do not know. In neither case is learning possible; on the first alternative because we know already; on the second, because we do not know what to look for, nor if, by chance, we find it can we tell that it is what we were after.” This section got me to thinking about a third possibility and that is, when are we ready to learn. I believe that Salvatore Scibona, as well as many of GBCS’s students, were not ready to learn when they were required to be in school. We can certainly discuss and debate the why’s and wherefore’s of this, but the reality of the situation is that many, perhaps most, of my current students were not, in fact, ready to participate meaningfully in school when they dropped out.
I want to take a moment to focus on just one student whom I have worked with for almost 3 years now, and who, I believe, really embodies the concept of readiness to educate. You’re probably thinking, “Three years in jail! How is that possible?” But through some weird loop holes in our legal system and as a result of his homlessness, he keeps returning to us. All of the inmates, at least the men, get nicknames in the pod. This particular student is so identified with his nickname that he has it tattooed to his arm. I want you to take a moment and picture him with me.
Scrappy is 22. He is no taller than 5’2”, and he must certainly weigh 250 pounds. When I first met him, he has a presence and personality that only a mother could love: impulsive, temperamental, rude, easily roused to anger, aptly nicknamed. He had very few academic skills to begin with. He couldn’t read very well. He couldn’t write at all. He didn’t know his multiplication tables. He was computer illiterate. He had zero high school credits.
What sparked Scrappy’s intellectual fire was learning how to read, learning how to sort through the details of what he read, and applying those skills to a series of mastery tests based on what he had read. When Scrappy left our literacy program, he was reading at 400 words per minute, and the material he was reading was the same as what an Air Force Academy cadet reads to graduate from the same literacy program we use at our school. He now tutors students in technology literacy and reading. He has earned 21 credits with us, and he is slated to graduate this spring.
Perhaps more importantly, his outbursts have all but vanished, he hasn’t fought in months, he thinks before he acts, and if he had a home to return to, I truly believe that he would not return to MDC any time soon.
This is what I believe: Scrappy came to all of this on his own. Dewey says, “…no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another.” In a similar vein, my guitar teacher always tells me when I have a break-through in musical theory or technique, “Chris, everyone’s self-taught.” I think we can guide our pupils, and we can model good thinking and academic processes, but everyone is in the end self-taught.
Update: As of this post’s date, Scrappy has NOT returned to MDC. This is a record for him. Though I have not seen him at out school downtown, my sincere hope is that he has finally begun to get his act together. My wish is that his “education” has something to do with his not coming back to MDC.