“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”
—Mark Van Doren, American poet, teacher and scholar
What are your “non-negotiables?” What are your educational deal killers? Montana author and speaker Judy Yero points out that many things that happen in schools would be deal killers for us, if we thought about it, and she has proposed the development of a set of non-negotiables. At Grauer, our non-negotiables stand out because they are not outcomes (such as accountability or high scores)—they are bigger than that.
Our students will become who they need to become, and they will produce what they need to produce, if we curate the right, caring environment for them. This is our work.
Our non-negotiables are not pie in the sky ideals, though some people and schools might mistake them for that—The Grauer School research team (and our Small Schools Coalition) develops and disseminates year-round studies, literature, and research demonstrating the evidence and achievement of our non-negotiables. What’s more, our non-negotiables are overwhelmingly supported in both scholarly research and all major spiritual traditions. Our faculty and board of trustees both support them, stated as follows:
- Real respect: Students must be respected, and experience kindness and real listening. Each teacher is genuinely encouraging and nurturing to each student. Each teacher is actively probing for and seeking out meaningful connections, and this is more important than curriculum or college prep. Relationships between and among all groups (e.g., teachers, students, parents) are warm, caring, and prioritized. Students mix easily across age (and other) groups. We seek fellowship in one another’s work, cares, and thought. This is the starting place: Respect.
- Trust: Children are trustworthy and good. They are born learners. And yet, it is common among schools, when a student does not perform the way the school wants, for the student to be labeled as lazy, untrustworthy, disabled, or rebellious. Great teachers—and our teachers—question the environment first. We question the culture we are developing before we blame a child for not performing in it. This does not mean our school can serve all kids or be all things to all students and families—we surely can’t. The Grauer School is not for everyone. But we look inward first, and deeply, and consistently. Our students notice and affirm this, formally and informally. Our basic assumption is that our students are trustworthy, that they are good, and that they are born learners.
- Voices and Choices: Self-direction and self-choice are basic elements of a great school and they characterize great learning. Specific, schoolwide programs are in constant development and evaluation, making our school more democratic. The teacher is not the “sage on the stage” as much as he/she is the “curator of the learning environment” and purveyor of resources. The question of how to balance covering rigorous requirements with probing students deeply as they clarify their own thoughts and develop curiosity is a permanently open question: we don’t pretend we can answer it.
In every program and assignment reasonable, we attempt to give students latitude and discretion. Student and teacher voices are equally valuable and shared. We are often seated in circles, eye to eye, reflecting.
- Self-reflection: Every student needs a chance to reflect either in writing, alone, or in discussion on every significant project or lesson. Reflection is how students learn about learning. Reflection is how we develop personal introspection and anchor learning into our memories. At Grauer, we build “self-evaluation rubrics” into every week and course of study, and those reflections go into a useful feedback loop that improves specific school programs.
It can be disheartening to learn how uncommon opportunities for self-reflection are in the course of a typical day in large and public schools, as in many large and bureaucratic institutions. Through self-reflection, students and teachers connect their day-to-day lessons and experiences with purposes larger than their own, with the natural world, and with other generations.
A defining condition of being human is that
we have to understand the meaning of our experience.
- Integrative learning: We naturally ask: What is biology without a garden? But let’s also ask: what is chemistry without biology? What is physical education without health? What is literature without spirituality and psychology? It is counter-productive and non-creative how “silo-ed” many courses have become, due largely to a huge government and corporate focus on rigid curricula that results in standardized tests. We are aware of reductionist thinking in academia. There is monumental research to support common sense that this is not the way human knowledge is gained or advanced, not the way we develop innovative and creative thinking, and not the way to develop a broad and purposeful intelligence—we routinely disseminate this research.
As with self-reflection, integrative learning enables students and teachers to connect their day-to-day lessons and experiences with larger purposes, with nature, with multiple disciplines, and with other generations.
The Grauer School will pursue and prioritize the above values with its full vigor and commitment, though at times we may be less than perfect in achieving them. These values require trade-offs that consistently differentiate our school from the culture of bigness, rank, sameness, pressure, and competitiveness our culture has come to expect of schooling. We thank Judy Yero for her inspiration. Respect, trust, voice and choice, self-reflection, and integrative learning are basic to the development of healthy, happy youths, even though they may be considered weak, un-measurable values for today’s typical schools, which mention them but avoid integrating them deeply into their programming or evaluation systems. More important, these non-negotiables, when agreed upon between and among our school’s faculty and families, support happiness and joyful learning, as well as virtually all outcomes we are confident in and committed to—and we intend to prove this to our families.
Write to me with your non-negotiables.
Yero, J. Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education, Johns Hopkins School of Education
Costa, A. and Kallick, B. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind
Tamer, M. The Value of Self Reflection, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/14/10/value-self-reflection
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