Ryan Morra's Learning Story


This past year I served as a Public Allies Teaching Fellow at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center, a school that is fully funded by the American Honda Education Corporation, where I taught secondary science. It became clear that the reason we could put into practice innovate teaching and youth development techniques was our private funding and the good faith held by Honda that we knew what we were doing. I have to admit that sometimes ‘ well, many times ‘ it seemed as though I didn’t know what I was doing. In retrospect it is more accurate to say that I knew why I was doing what I did, but I just didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. That is often the case of an artist, and always the case of a great artist. And isn’t teaching more of an art form than anything else? Teachers that are forced into making a certain outcome happen are thus being stripped of their creative abilities, and the students will suffer because of it – this is the most creative time in their lives as well. Students’ brains are making countless new connections everyday, and their emotional interaction with others is constantly evolving. It seems as though lawmakers have no idea about the teacher-as-artist, and any intervention has been rife with quotas, scores, and consequences that come along with not meeting those. So does the government need to make the equal opportunity to learn a constitutional right? Well, yes, but more importantly, we need to agree on what it means to have access to quality education, and we then need to restructure our schools in order to carry out that vision. In the fall of 1999, I participated in a dynamic semester-long urban studies program called CITYterm in New York City. The mission was simple and clear: ‘to encourage students to engage fully in learning and thinking for themselves, about themselves and about who and what is beyond themselves.’ Again, what worked here was giving the educators the power to use their creative abilities freely, which resulted in many students themselves tapping into their full creative potential. Did every single student live up to his or her full potential and engage fully in their learning? Obviously not, but it I know that our success as students was largely on us. Some of use may have been too uncomfortable in such an open learning environment (many of the students coming from goal-driven, high productivity college preparatory schools), and some didn’t realize that you couldn’t be lackadaisical and creative at the same time. In our current public education system, it is so easy to turn on the cruise control in school and get by with decent enough grades to pass, and just as easy to give up completely. The minute your education is truly put into your own hands is when you are forced to think for yourself. It is also when the quality of your education improves, because the type of thinking you are asked to do knows no limits (there is no correct answer to which you strive). So in the grand scheme of education reform, what is needed from the government is certainly not more oversight. Simply put, schools need to be funded equitably in order to ensure that all students are getting an equal opportunity to learn. Moreover, this funding needs to come with far fewer attachments than it currently does so that teachers can use their time in the classroom more creatively. The physical environment must be safe and open, and students should have access to materials and experiences that allow for their creativity to be boundless. Public funding needs to be increased – and in some places greatly increased – to go beyond ensuring that there is just a chair and textbook for each warm body in the room (which actually doesn’t even occur in some schools). Is it unnerving for many people to think about funding schools like this, with little oversight? Yes. Do all educators know how to develop this type of creative and open learning environment in their schools right now? No. At the rate that students drop out of high school right now, how important are those questions? Certainly, what we have been doing has not been working fully, so change is needed at a much broader level. Teachers need to start being trained and re-trained to think more like an artist, and schools need to be re-designed to allow for teachers to be artists ‘ with more focus on allowing space for the process, knowing that the outcome is always a little uncertain. Proponents of grades and test scores need not worry ‘ in an open, creative learning community that is self-directed, it is still quite apparent which students are engaged, and which are checked-out. The difference is that when students and teachers are engaged together, it is far easier to bring those other checked-out students onboard ‘ although the decision is ultimately up to student. The difference is that students who are engaged in this type of school are doing more than giving the correct responses, they are learning what it means to grow into a woman or a man, and learning about how they interact with the world around them. It is a different way of thinking about learning, but whatever we thought we had figured out about learning needs to change.