Archives for the month of: December, 2013
Picture by Roger Bamber : 27 July 2006: Education Feature…Family Wilderness camping. Jack Knopp(8)
learns to light a fire with leader of Natural Pathways Hannah Nicholls looking on. Courtesy of

To teach, to learn.  (photo credit at bottom)

I  believe I have arrived at the proper metaphor for education.  A good school is not a conveyor belt;  it’s not a fast food restaurant (although reformers seek to turn it into one);  it’s not even a garden or a collection of explorers.

A school is a community of people with fire in their hearts for some branch of learning, who seek to share that fire with others.

We teachers seek to light kids up with the flame of intellectual, artistic, or athletic curiosity.  We seek to illuminate them with the vision of what they might accomplish in any given field.  We want to set them on fire.

Once your fire lights, no one can prevent you from learning more.  You will seek out resources, you will read books, you’ll talk to experts, you will practice your craft.  Once the kid is alight, we just blow on the flame a little and offer more fuel for the fire.

When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Luckie, set me on fire.  I saw with my own eyes the brilliance of Orwell and E. B. White and Mark Twain.  I was stunned by the complexity and depth of their deceptively simple sentences, the density of their meaning, and for the rest of my life, I have sought to improve my own writing.  I haven’t seen Mrs. Luckie since 1977, but I’ve never stopped working at what she showed me was there to be done.  I’m on fire for clear, precise language.

While I’m drifting down memory lane, I’d also like to give thanks to Mme. Menendez, who by sheer force of will, blazed French into our brains.  As long as there was breath in her body, she would sear good pronunciation, grammar, and vocab into us.  We were going to speak French or she’d know the reason why.  It worked.

No one can tell what will set a kid on fire.  Some burst into flame on the basketball court, some at the potter’s wheel, some in algebra class, and some in choir.  That’s why we need a panoply of offerings, so as to offer to light as many kids in as many ways as we can.

Teachers must protect their personal flames or suffer burnout.  Teachers must feed their own fires.  Colleagues who share the fire help enormously.  Getting away from school to pursue our own learning is a way to feed the flame within.

William Butler Yeats may or may not have said it this way:
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Notice also how you can never test for this?

Photo credit:

Picture by Roger Bamber : 27 July 2006: Education Feature…Family Wilderness camping. Jack Knopp(8)
learns to light a fire with leader of Natural Pathways Hannah Nicholls looking on.
Courtesy of

What is education like?  When I was a kid, an assembly-line metaphor dominated public discourse.  How many hours should kids spend on each subject?  It was as if we were empty vessels, to be filled like shampoo bottles with a certain amount of edu-goo at pre-determined intervals, squirted from finely calibrated teacher-dispensers with finely calibrated access to our empty brain-pans.  So much time on Home Ec (for girls) and Shop (for boys) would ensure that all of us could have our buttons sewn on and our hinges tightened in all our future households.  X amount of English, Y amount of foreign language, Z amount of music, and off the newly-capped vessels would rattle, all topped up and full of value.

All the nice learning goes in to the passive bottles.

All the nice learning goes in to the passive bottles.


As if the vessels themselves had no part in the transaction.


The flaws of that metaphor struck even casual observers.  What if the vessels deflected the dispensing?  What if you sat a kid for the requisite number of hours in English class and the poor little shampoo bottle still came up empty?  There seems to me now to have been a sneaking presumption that it was the dispensers’ fault:  they weren’t trying hard enough to aim the goo, to have the right goo, or to find a way to inject the goo into each little bottle.


So now we needed standards.  That’s how we could figure out which bottles had attained their proper level of value.  Let the kids demonstrate that they could reach the standards.  This meant Big Testing.  What exactly are the standards?  How will we measure them and how frequently need they be measured?  Here the current metaphor came into being.  It, like the conveyor belt metaphor, came to us from business—and that fact strikes me as curious.  Our business leaders, flushed with their success at making bucks, turn their attention to our kids as their future employees, as if schools are in business largely to keep them in business:  presumptuous and erroneous.


But the model we have now, based on standards, is in fact a fast food model.  Ray Kroc and his bretheren bequeathed to us a model of infinite uniformity imposed on natural variables (like potatoes or children), executed by minimally trained, minimally human workers (in the sense that they are not encouraged to use their ingenuity or uniqueness to respond to customers, but rather forced into a script of acceptable responses determined by those much higher up the chain of command) who are paid minimum wage.  This is the model to which “reformers” of education now aspire.  Fire all the teachers!  Hire grads with six weeks of training!  Replace them when they have any experience!  Standardize the outcomes!  Measure everything all the time!

Teacher bringing students up to standards.

Teacher bringing students up to standards.


I propose a new analogy, predicated on the respect for each individual’s unique potential.  What about teacher as gardener, seeking the right conditions, nutrients, water, sunshine, and care for each seedling, no matter what variety, and indeed we cannot know the variety, so as to maximize the health and well being of each one, in the hope of its one day bearing fine fruit?

Skilled and demanding work.

Skilled and demanding work.

But that doesn’t fully express it either, because kids are human beings, not plants, and we are co-learners.  It’s more like equipping them for exploration.

Oh, the places you'll go.

Oh, the places you’ll go.

We teachers are on our learning journey as students are on theirs.  Our job is to equip them with the skills and tools they will need, no matter where they go or what they find when they get there.



Slow and steady, no matter what.

Slow and steady, no matter what.

Someone I know has suffered a set-back.  On a project that rejoiced him, on which he had worked hard, he was disqualified from advancing to the next round.  This stings.

Figuring out how to deal with a setback is one of those essential tools for the kit, but nobody wants to hear it.  They just don’t want the setback.  How do you persuade yourself that the setback is what matters?  Learning is all about the setback.  You can count on setbacks.  They’re built in, part of the terrain, like sidewalks that stick up and trip you, or splinters waiting for your foot to come along and make their day.

So how to meet them?  Only 2 choices.

1.  Quit.

I quit playing guitar in high school after 2 or 3 lessons because my fingers hurt.  I quit ballet lessons in elementary school because I hated the developpe– it hurt (evidently my credo is “Pain?  No gain.”).

2.  Keep going anyway.  Recommit, gird your loins, pull the splinter and brush off the dirt, and off you go.

We try to convince kids of this wisdom, with old faithfuls like the Tortoise and the Hare, but everyone secretly believes that he’ll be the hare, and just won’t fall asleep like a jackass.  Fall asleep after the finish line, you idiot!  But in fact we are all tortoises:  there’s always someone faster or smarter or younger or better looking or has more money or whatever.  We only get to be hares at intervals and never for long and just about always, the hare starts showboating and falls asleep just to prove he can.  That’s the nature of tortoises masquerading as hares.

The tortoise always seems so boring and lacking in imagination, while the flashy hare turns the heads, but it turns out, he understood it all.


Dory knows.

Dory knows.


Banging along to the Lumineers.

Two aspiring musicians plus the Lumineers on stereo.

To learn something, you shuttle between the appalling knowledge of all you don’t know and a nice, plucky, can-do sense of moving steadily along.

Teaching feels like this:  a finely honed sense of whether to help the kids understand (kindly, of course) how completely ignorant and clueless they are?  Or whether to encourage and help them feel powerful and able?  Too much confidence means they think they have nothing to learn.  Too much humility and they’re overwhelmed, crushed to the ground, by all there is to know.

Many thanks to those like my son who step in at intervals to point out the obvious:  no matter how much there is to know, if you work hard at it for twenty years, consistently and with proper effort, you’re apt to wind up pretty good at it.  Even if it’s as hard as guitar.

New Hope November 2013:  Near Fred's Breakfast

New Hope November 2013: Near Fred’s Breakfast. Looking across the river to Lambertville.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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