Most people can relate to that moment of anxiety that boils up suddenly upon walking into a room full of people, as heads turn simultaneously to assess your presence. It makes one suddenly aware of the mechanics of their walking. Something that, up to this point, came naturally now feels measured, awkward or contrived. Why is that?
Jean Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, writes: “The appearance of The Other in the world corresponds to a fixed sliding of the whole universe...the world has a kind of drain hole in the middle of its being”. The human anxiety induced by the look of “the Other” requires a defense to preserve the self, often in the form of overcompensation, a “puffing-up” to avoid the threat of total dissolution. What is it about the human being that quakes in the eyes of the Other? In teenagers, bad attitudes, misbehavior and confrontations often emerge in response to the anxiety of a lifetime of being watched. This theory may seem high-minded or esoteric, yet it serves as my practical philosophy of education.
Students at my school have come to find a second chance. The majority have been over-looked and overly looked-at, and yet not really seen at all". They experience a world in which they are constantly being sized-up--by their families, friends and neighbors--for any signs of exploitable weakness. They have been repeatedly told that they are failing, will continue to fail, and that they should give up.
At home, the material concerns of life press harder than the abstract and far-off ideal of a college education that they have been told will pay off with a good job, “in the long run”. There are few “long run” success stories to be viewed in their neighborhoods and families. Many of my students have dropped out of the giant, one-size-fits-all public school behemoths, frustrated by their experiences in the traditional educational model, a model where students dwell in an inferior role to their teachers, and where they are asked to take it on good faith that what they’re learning will serve them some far-off day. They are referred to by some as the lost ones, branded as failures. The truth is, I find them smarter and braver than those, who as I did, bite their tongue and wait it out.
Our school is different. Without ACE Leadership many of these young people would be out of options. Our new small school aims to fully connect the student, as a whole human being, to both the content and the community. Through partnership with Associated General Contractors (AGC) of New Mexico, our school incorporates professionals from the architecture, construction and engineering professions with opportunities to shape our curriculum, projects and assessment, so that students have access to real-world information and opportunities. They also have access to those professionals themselves, as Deborah Meier deems them, “an inviting adult community” to which they might someday belong.
William Butler Yeats famously wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. We do our best to ignite students’ interest through the projects and problems which define our curriculum, with a guarantee that in the end, their work will be made public. The relevance of their efforts becomes palpable, a driver and motivator. Students collaborate together to create products that demonstrate mastery of specified learning outcomes. We do not rotely address long lists of standards in sequence as many schools attempt to do, but create interdisciplinary projects where multiple teachers collaborate to design and differentiate curriculum. As a team, teachers work to make possible vital, engaging, real-world opportunities for students to design, collaborate, build, promote, assess and explain their work. Next trimester, for example, I plan to co-teach a class called “Solarium”, which incorporates reading, social studies, Spanish and science, and culminates with solar-powered team products, written statements and oral presentations. The outcomes are of course derived from the Common Core curriculum and our state standards, but they are presented within an interdisciplinary context, much the way knowledge exists and materializes in the real world.
If they do not meet the learning outcomes at first call, we give them as many opportunities as possible. There is no “failure”in our vocabulary--something that can at first bewilder students,--only a “not yet mastered”. Students who have worked hard during the trimester, but need more time to demonstrate mastery are invited to a week of interim school, where they get more time and teacher attention to master content and skills. Our project-based learning (PBL) curriculum means that students gain, for example, literacy skills and science content knowledge through a project examining cutting-edge design and build practices in the industry. Instead of presenting this product only to a teacher and classmates within the school, at our exhibitions teams of students learn to speak to and interact with industry professionals they might otherwise have no access to. In this way, students learn not only the fundamentals of science and humanities, for example, but also that their work can have an effect on others around them, and in the community. Projects are pursued in small groups, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and communication, of speaking one’s mind in a constructive way.
Our greatest strength at ACE Leadership, however, is not our PBL curriculum or our strongcommunity engagement, but the lens through which we see students as social-emotional beings, not to be corralled, but cultivated. Balancing love and understanding with boundaries and expectations challenges a teacher’s understanding of his/her authority-if only because most teachers came of age in a school system where adjusting for an individual’s social-emotional health threatened structures of power.
I came to ACE Leadership from the New York City public school system, carrying with me some of the attitudes endemic to that environment. My authority was abstract but more powerful than my students, to be accepted without question; content knowledge was supreme, and standardized tests defined success or failure, both for the student and for the school. There, I joined the Watchers, other “drain-holes in the world”, as Sartre described. I sat in the Teacher’s Room and lamented the injustices I experienced at the hands of disengaged students, and the vagaries of our distressed administration. Conversations about learning always centered on the teacher. I assumed this was a natural behavioral reaction. It was, in fact, a distorted perception I did not see more clearly until I joined ACE Leadership where, as part of the induction, I began to learn about Positive Youth Development (PYD).
As the name indicates, PYD focuses on assets. A student may be working “below grade-level” in a subject, may come from a violent home or neighborhood, and may exhibit unhealthy or self-destructive behaviors, yet there is always something good to be found and noted about that student, something they “bring to the table”. For us at ACE, the conversation begins here. What is good in that student’s world today?
That simple shift in focus can be transformative. Many of our students mistrust adults, because the focus has always been on what is wrong with them as “students”. The adults in their lives have only seen and talked about what they as students lacked. The resulting natural defensiveness can erect walls between teacher and student, adult and adolescent. Don’t get me wrong. Lovey-dovey is not a phrase I would use to describe our approach to discipline. It is still necessary for us to be firm, resolute and principled. There is a saying we share often with our students, “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness”. Our teachers approach students from an asset-based perspective, while at the same time being clear and purposeful about protecting our school community. Students then have the opportunity to experience, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a strong, demanding love”.
The strong, demanding love that is the basis of PYD works when teachers and staff are trained in the philosophyandtogether in professional development sessions. The condition for its possibility exists when the tenets of PYDare built into the curriculum (as in advisory), and the logistics of school functioning. We do not use a bell system at ACE Leadership, for example, because we want to prepare students for the professional world, where they will more likely be working in an environment where they need to have a different awareness of the role of time, as opposed to a factory where they mindlessly move from one place to another. Because projects are intenselycollaborative and our day runs from 9-5, as in the professional world, students are not tasked with rote homework assignments, our grades are not the result of an accumulation of points, but rather the final product that is evidence of their learning. Through Positive Youth Development (PYD) and Project-Based Learning (PBL) we at ACE Leadership are working to de-institutionalize education and create a culture that grows people who do the right things for the right reasons.
Approaching a young person from a perspective such as this quickly induces an observable change in attitudes and behaviors. Nearly half-way through the year, working with students who have not succeeded conforming to traditional school,we have had no fights, minimal vandalism and minimal behavior management issues, believe it or not. With dignity intact, a student’s motivation begins to come from within. They no longer need to scramble for external rewards to bring favor or evade punishment as an animal would. Their work is for them. It requires relevant, critical thinking to solve problems, and it has the potential to make possible success in real-world opportunities. Their agency and ability to choose well can preserve and empower them.
Arriving at a new and hopeful community of teachers and learners, I have experienced first-handthat offering relevant, Project-Based Learning, in conjunction with strong Positive Youth Development can ameliorate the damage done to young people, and to our society, by an increasingly anachronistic educational system. Supporting students’ growth as creative, divergent thinkers and problem-solvers, while considering their social-emotional context and challenges creates a new possibility --the chance for a more humane relationship between those with power and authority and those who have come to see themselves as powerless, if only because they have been watched for so long, yet never really seen.
Hope Kitts is a Resource teacher in the Humanities at the Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) Leadership HS in Albuquerque, NM. She is a graduate of Eugene Lang College/The New School where she majored in Philosophy and of Brooklyn College, where she received her Master’s in Education.