The Mission of Clark Street Community School is to democratically cultivate a community of engaged learners, serve as a resource for educators, and a catalyst for reform in education throughout our region and our nation.
I begin the year exploring what the mission of Clark Street means to me as a leader and how we work to put it into action in our practice. In my last posting, I wrote about democratically. This week, I will spend a little time exploring cultivate. While I haven’t kept the data, I would venture a bet that in our first three years of existence, we have spent more time as a staff (and I have consequently spent more time mulling in my head) the concept of cultivating than any other concept. That being said, if you asked my staff how much we talked about this actual word, they would likely be hard pressed to come up with one instance of such a discussion. For me, this word in our mission beautifully captures a constant tension that always exist for the adults at CSCS: Do we create more structure or do we give more room to grow? How much freedom to explore, try, fail, and develop is the right amount? How do our answers to these questions change based on the learner, the project, and the context? Teachers working with students ask this many times a day and I as a leader of leaders ask it of myself about my staff regularly as well.
I have mostly come to peace with the fact that this tension is absolutely necessary. One of the things I like to talk to students, staff, and families about is my concept of the “I don’t know yet, but I will” space. It is my belief that our role as educators and mentors is to help create the conditions for our learners to stay in this space longer. For years, I watched students jump out of this space very quickly either by deciding that they didn’t know something and would probably never know it and therefore there was no sense in making an effort or by deciding they had to know and had to prove they knew quickly in order to remain competitive, so they would employ some shortcut to create the illusion that they knew something long before they really did. As a student, I was the latter. As an educator, I had committed my career to working with students who fell mainly in the former category. As an educational leader, I have come to deeply understand that our system is set up to force kids out of this space. Our traditional educational system values time constraints over learning, surface level demonstration of understanding over deep mastery, and sorting students into categories over developing all of their varied strengths. For me, changing this system is all about cultivating.
Cultivating conjures up images of gardening for me. While I am far from a master gardener, the concept of creating the right conditions based on the best information available to you about the plants and the growing conditions and then constantly reassessing what is needed based on how the plants respond captures well my idea of why we chose the term cultivate. A novice gardener learns quickly that there are no fool-proof recipes that will guarantee success. You need to do your research to create the best conditions, give the plants the opportunity to grow, weed, trim, and support, but most importantly, you must remain attentive and responsive to the needs of the plants as the conditions change.
Supporting deep learning certainly takes the same level of thought, care and attention. As an added challenge, we ultimately hope to cultivate learners who are self-directed and capable of managing the changing conditions around them in a way that keeps them thriving! At CSCS, most of the changes we have made in our structures have been about creating a system which provides students enough structure to confidently enter into the work without limiting their vision of where they can go and without providing so much structure that they never develop the strengths and confidence in their own ability. As the narrative around judging educational excellence has moved more and more in the direction of narrow accountability which continues to reward and reinforce surface level understanding and the sorting of students, we have continued to push back on this through seeking to develop a system that will help each student find their strengths and passions, develop the skills they need to be independent, self-directed learners, while at the same time appreciating the power of living and working within a diverse and often unpredictable community.
Because all of us have been trained and have spent most of our lives in systems where structure, safety, and right answers were rewarded far more than taking risks, learning through trial, and messy collaboration, we have had to spend a lot of time talking about cultivating. What I have come to learn and appreciate is that it is in these conversations that we continue to improve both the art and the science of the work we do. No one individual has this all figured out. And yet, when we share our collective experiences and challenge ourselves to keep our conversations grounded in cultivating rather than forcing or neglecting, the patterns begin to emerge. From these patterns, we can begin to create the right conditions with (not for) each learner.
Cultivating a community of engaged learners is stimulating, challenging work. Holding ourselves to a standard which demands that each learner leaves us ready to do this on their own, has pushed each and every one of us to grow personally and professionally. And most importantly….the results are beginning to show! We would love to hear your stories and your ideas about how we can continue to grow and improve our cultivation skills!