I haven’t met Ernesto Prada, but I hope to someday. He’s a student at Santa Fe High, and he’s asking the very question we’ve been researching at the Academy for the Love of Learning for the last couple years: What can “school” be?
In a poem he recently delivered to a forum of some 150 adults and teenagers, including leaders from the Santa Fe Public Schools, Prada posed the question like this:
“What if we attended a dream school? / Where all the farmers could farm, and all the mathematicians can formulate, all the bakers could create, all the artists could paint, and all the readers can write, and study how to pursue the lifestyle that they obviously have a knack for.”
As adults who care about education, we can respond to Prada’s question in two ways. One is to give him the old “life is a game, boy” lecture from Catcher in the Rye, congratulate him on his writing talent and then remind him the real world awaits. Learn some real skills and discipline, Ernesto. Take some real tests. You can dream after college.
Or we can take Prada’s question as an invitation to stop for a moment and reflect. What if we did “dream” up new models of school? What might they look like?
In my research with the Academy, I’ve come across several communities that have done this type of dreaming. I’ve reported on them in this column over the past year, from the brilliant Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy, to the interest-based Met High School in Providence, R.I., to the transformative arts programming of Pojoaque’s Poeh Center, just up the road.
Now, it appears SFPS has begun to do some dreaming of its own. A team of 13 administrators and district officials has been meeting to envision new ways to “do” school in Santa Fe. They’re focused on high school at this stage; their report on the superintendent’s webpage sketches out some of their proposals, which include magnet schools, career academies and night programs.
I don’t know enough about their ideas to weigh in, but I find it encouraging that this “dream” team exists at all. Even more encouraging is the fact that they’re garnering input from students, teachers and community members by convening forums, like that at which Ernesto Prada read his poem. SFPS Superintendent Joel Boyd was in the audience that afternoon; according to a report in the New Mexican, he was impressed by the presentations, and indicated a willingness to incorporate some of the students’ ideas.
I hope he does. I hope Boyd and his team find a way to incorporate Prada’s dream—which I share—of schools that fuel student passions. I also hope they can incorporate the dream of Prada’s inspired teacher, Tammy Harkins, who has already begun drawing up plans for a school focused on sustainability and environmental justice. And I hope they can incorporate other Santa Feans’ dreams of dual language schools, art schools, mariachi schools, mentorship-based schools, schools where students farm, or cook, or explore nature.
Of course, many Santa Feans—and, it seems, many officials from the New Mexico Public Education Department—dream of schools not much different from those they attended themselves: stacks of classrooms where children study a standardized curriculum in a disciplined, orderly way. Boyd and his team must do their best to honor those dreams as well.
No small feat, then, catching all these disparate dreams, and working with teachers to translate them into reality. Boyd and his team should be commended for their willingness to give it a try. In doing so they are forging into unfamiliar territory, where conventional educational leadership models will be of little use. For this type of leadership—call it “community dreamcatching”—is not about raising scores and increasing accountability. It’s not about pushing through bold reforms. It’s about stepping into uncertainty; tapping the imagination, resources and passions of human beings; and reflecting deeply—in the spirit of John Dewey—on what they learn.
If SFPS’ leaders do proceed in this fashion, I suspect they’ll discover they’re not completely sure what type of schools our community needs. Which would be the perfect place to begin.
A graduate of SFPS and a former Santa Fe educator, Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research what “school” could someday be. Check out his blog.