The Larger Conversation

A year ago today, I lost a mentor and good friend of twenty years when Ted Sizer died after, as people say, “a long struggle” with cancer.

Newspapers referred to Ted’s distinguished career as an educator – he was known as the “boy dean” at Harvard (he was in his early 30’s when he became dean) and, later, as ‘”Peter Pan” by his former students because he seemed eternally youthful. They noted that he is best known as the author of the Horace trilogy (Horace’s Compromise, Horace’s School, and Horace’s Hope), which describe in elegant and often painful prose what it meant to teach in America’s public schools in the decades surrounding the turn of the century, and as the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a loose collection of schools and individuals bound together by a shared belief in the Coalition’s Ten Common Principles.

His ideas – once considered radical – are a part of the fabric of schools today: the power of personalization, students as workers, essential questions, critical friends, exhibitions, high and common expectations for all students.

Ted was as famous as educators get to be in this country, and as influential. He met with presidents (and was headmaster to one) and governors and other “policymakers” and more wealthy people than you could shake a stick at.

But, professionally, he loved being with teachers and students and principals – loved the chance to watch, to learn, to inquire, to wonder. “Why do you think that is?” “How did you figure that out?” What’s that make you wonder about?"

To students he would ask, “Why do you think that is?” “How did you figure that out?” "What does that make you wonder about?, “What’s your biggest challenge?”, “Why did you ask that question just then?”, “How did you know what that kiddo needed?”, What’s going on with that quiet one over in the corner?”. People responded, almost always, with warmth and candor, understanding intuitively that they were being asked genuine questions from someone who respected them as learners and teachers.

Ted had enormous respect for teachers, and thought of himself always as a teacher. I believe Ted would have loved being in a New Tech school, and would be amazed at the expertise of both students and adults in terms of technology use. He would be fascinated by projects, and his eyes would sparkle watching students work together.

Ted would, though, come back to a few key questions:

Is the school organized in such a way that each student is known well by at least one teacher?

Do teachers work with the same set of students over a period of years? If so, how do you design for that? If not, why not?

Do teachers who work with the same students have time to plan together and share information about students?

Are you stretching each and every student, not just some of them?

What does personalization mean in this school, and how does that help each student to learn?

What opportunities do students have to show adults, in school and in their community, what they know and are able to do?

How are you helping each student learn to use her mind well?

For Ted, the conversations that took place around those questions (as well as the answers) would be the primary determiners of the school’s potential to serve students well. As, I hope, they are for us…

I miss my friend more today than most days, but count myself fortunate to be among people Ted would see as living out his ideals and principles, and who would affirm his faith in teachers.

Hardly anyone gets to begin an important new job at just about the same time he applies for social security, but I did. And it feels great to me to be joining the New Tech community. Its basic focus embodies what Ted hoped to see inside schools: places where kids are challenged to do important work, and where they have teachers and principals who are deeply committed to their learning.

My colleagues at New Tech know more than I do about the details of the New Tech design: several helped create it, almost all of them worked in a NT school themselves, and now work daily with our 62 current New Tech schools, helping make each school stronger. My most useful contribution to our conversation is probably to provide perspective on New Tech’s work, its place in the larger world of education reform and possibilities for the future. This first blog entry is more personal than most will be, but reflects what’s on my mind today – my understanding of what blogs are meant to do…

Photo credit: ATIS547