Building Community
Building Community

When educators design and create new schools, and live next gen learning themselves, they take the lead in growing next gen learning across the nation. Other educators don’t simply follow and adopt; next gen learning depends on personal and community agency—the will to own the change, fueled by the desire to learn from and with others. Networks and policy play important roles in enabling grassroots approaches to change.

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How does one teach well, and with devotion, to nurture curiosity, agency, and opportunity in our youth, in times like these?

Every now and then I need to pull myself away from being pulled into the undertow. The invisible kind that looks and smells of early morning darkness in November. When the catastrophic and the violent, the unfathomable and the unconscionable, become the milk and coffee of our daily lives. Sometimes, I wake up thinking: Where will it be today, Syria, Iran, or perhaps in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on the number one train?

We are all living through a moment of extreme brokenness. The daily exposure to so much misinformation and malevolence is no easy thing to ignore or digest. Teachers are human beings of intelligence, integrity, and deep care. But how many lock down, shelter in place, and intruder drills does it take to know that there is a mental health crisis amongst us? And that it is not only our children who are being impacted?

As a teacher who works in the realm of potential and human possibility—there are those mornings I can't help but wonder if the gods decided to sit this one out. Are they sipping ambrosia while amusedly watching on some streaming service the reruns of civilization unraveling, as it has for 20 centuries now, with nonstop war, disease, and cruelty to all living things?

How does one teach well, and with devotion, in times like this?

This is more than a rhetorical question. It’s an existential one. How do you stay true to your best self… When so much is out of kilter and more than likely to intensify? When the capacity to think critically, imaginatively, and courageously is under assault? When “the shared respect for the extraordinary nature of thinking and learning,” which Mike Rose, scholar, educator, and writer, describes as foundational to public education, is being challenged? (See states’ assaults on books, transgender youth, women’s right to choose, DEI, Critical Race Theory, the teaching of U.S. History, etc.)

Perhaps, the question is: How do you nurture life in the young to exercise curiosity and agency in the world and not get infected, as Camus wrote, by “the plague”? The pandemic of despair, cynicism, and anger (not limited to the United States) reinforces the fracture in our public lives and the body politic. How can teachers stay safe inwardly and outwardly from the virulence while continuously nourishing the young with ideas, opportunities, and the energy to become creative and discerning thinkers, caring and good human beings?

To combat all the unexplainable and arbitrary things happening in our world, I offer six antidotes to avoid the rip tide (powerlessness, fear, despair, cynicism, anger). These antidotes have insights gathered from people who have made a lifetime of difference in education and culture: George Dennison, Herbert Kohl, Deborah Meir, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Toni Morrison, Mike Rose, Vortek Murthy, Hannah Arendt, and distant descendants: Aristophanes and Socrates. All of these wise citizens should belong to a playbook of courageous thinkers, writers, and radical humanists that educators can draw on in dark times. These are six antidotes for avoiding the undertow and for staying buoyant and intentional, which is what makes being a teacher “a militant vocation, and a wonderful thing to be… in cynical times,” as educator and writer Herb Kohl describes.

Humor and Humility

What the ancient Greeks called the Tragic Sense of Life, shorthand for attuning yourself for the bumpy ride; life. Coping skills and perspective (many) for the arbitrary nature of fate. Not immune to war, slavery, and human flaws, the secret hot sauce for the ancient Greeks was humor and humility. (What educator and activist Parker Palmer calls chutzpah). Both Aristophanes and Socrates embodied this. As artists and teachers, they drew from humor and humility to hold that tension between joy and sadness, life and loss, contradiction and human frailty. The good news is we don’t need to be Aristophanes or Socrates to teach these human skills—discernment, kindness, empathy, happiness, decency, listening—especially if we choose a life of wholeness and integration as part of the vision for becoming educated.

Hope

Not pious, nor platitude. But through our work that makes a meaningful increment of a better world according to George Dennison, who founded the short-lived Second Street School, in the lower east side of New York, during another tumultuous period in the U.S., 1968. Hope is a complex and nuanced position anchored in commitment and belief in democratic behavior and public education which Herb Kohl places “at the center of the art and craft of teaching.” This kind of hope is grounded in healing and restoring. This is the hope that Deborah Meier, the founder and director of the schools Central Park East 1 & 2, calls “that gray space between being a family and a school… [where] we engender hopefulness.” Where there is less talk about outcomes but something weightier and life changing, hope can be grounded in curating intellect, curiosity, and creativity. Hope that is informed and shaped by deep intelligence and civic vision is necessary to redefine with our students the meaning and value of happiness and well-being, what Lucy Sprague Mitchell called “a learning life.”

Defiance

The immense resistance that is required to stand up to the onslaught of ignorance and false knowledge, the arrogance of race baiting and hate mongering that masquerades as policy making and legislation. Defiance then as moral imperative. This is the kind of defiance that author Toni Morrison describes as “calculated ferocity.” Or as my colleague Gary Chapin puts it, “Great teaching is civil disobedience.” As an antidote for teaching in these times, defiance is a kind of intentional resistance to all forms of individual or institutional stupidity that undermines the dignity and potential of all children, or threatens the sanctity of the imaginations, intelligence, or goodness of learners and teachers. “Teachers should be as resistant and resilient as their students. At its best teaching is a nurturing and militant vocation and a wonderful thing to be doing in cynical times,” writes Herb Kohl. We are neither gatekeepers nor warehouses. We are more like windows and mirrors. We are Lincoln’s “better angels” responsible for promoting in all learners the capacity to think deeply and broadly about ideas and events. Our currency is mindfulness. Not fear. The most effective resistance we have to ignorance and misrepresentation is a literacy that believes in and trusts the natural powers of children.

Love

Love as the through point, the thread, the “linking of multiple hands” anchoring and informing everything we do. Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th century’s great intellectuals, defined education as “when we love our children enough not to expel them from our world” and develop their capacity for “renewing a common world.” Surgeon General Vortek Murthy writes, “If we want to break this cycle [the mental health crisis amongst young people and seniors] we need to reclaim our lives by rebuilding our connection to one another.” This antidote of love is what he calls “the social infrastructure, the spaces that foster connection, belonging, and learning, where children and young adults can experience the richness of human diversity and identity.”

Self love: Taking care of ourselves. Mental health used to have such a bad negative connotation. “Everyone’s naked there’s nothing to hide,” Paul Simon intones in his 7 Psalms. We live in anxious times and finding stability in the uncertain world means “making time to lose time;” forgiving ourselves for what we haven't done; and saving space for joy: the things that make us happy and full. Murthy reminds us that “our mental health is the fuel that allows us to be and do what we do to show up for families, for our friends, for our workplaces, for our communities.” Self care = knowing how to keep one’s tank full.

Agency

When we act with choice and intentionality, which is what being an adult is about. To help kids through the crisis of their lives by insisting on every child’s birth right to grow up happy and secure. To tap into their multiple intelligences believing in their inherent sociability, curiosity, and drive to make sense and meaning. Teaching in times like these means resisting the pressure to control every moment of the day and cram kids' heads with inert information. And to wholesale reject the obsession with labeling and fixing our students.

Don’t ask students what they need, find out what they love and what brings them joy. Accompany them as they build connection with themselves and with others.

Beauty

Not covered in the curriculum, when, in fact, it is the curriculum. Not to be overlooked, trivialized, nor taken for granted. Especially in dark times. More than things, objects, or wealth, noticing beauty on a daily basis opens the heart of appreciation and gratitude. Only small dosages are required. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Why not make beauty a habit? How to pay attention and notice beauty is a gift we can give ourselves and our students. Or as the Navajo believed:

In beauty may I walk.
May I find beauty before me
And beauty behind
And below
And above
And around me more beauty
Beauty the entire length of the trail
That comes to an end in beauty.

That’s it. Six antidotes for remaking a world and resisting the undertow. Humility and humor, hope, defiance, love, agency, and beauty. These antidotes help me navigate a world that is both tragic and immensely beautiful at the same time. They offer us the chance to counter the horrors of an unjust and mad world, and to go for broke.


Image at top: “A Beautiful Place that Exists” by Janelle Lynch, 2022, Cyanotype, 10x8 inches.

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David Penberg

Educator, Writer, Teacher

Dr. David Penberg is an educator, writer, and teacher based in the Catskill mountains of New York. He is an urban and international educator who for four decades has supported communities of teachers, students, and leaders in deepening our understanding of what it means to become an educated citizen. He is presently a consultant at Kindle Education, a new charter middle school in Jersey City, and a Leader in Residence with 2Revolutions.