By Josh Parker, Title I GAP Reduction Specialist; 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year; 2011-2012 Baltimore County Teacher of the Year
“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret.”
I was blessed this summer to visit Brazil as part of a Pearson Foundation Global Learning Fellowship with the National Education Association (NEA) Foundation. Along with 35 other educators from across the United States, I toured the schools and learned the culture of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. The sights and sounds all coalesced to create a profoundly soulful and instructive experience. There were two significant take-aways from my visit: value and partnerships.
Inside every classroom, inside every student-teacher exchange, it was evident that Brazilians value their culture – and, by extension, the culture of their students. This value could be seen just by walking the streets of Rio, where the Brazilian flag was omnipresent – whether in an upscale restaurant or in a corner grocery store. This value of culture led to a truly student-centered pedagogy in the schools that we visited, as students were leading each presentation, guiding each tour and authentically interacting with teachers during lessons.
By the end of our fellowship, we had gained great appreciation for their culture as well, which is a profound point: by immersing ourselves in the cultural practices and environments of students – and teachers – who were different than us, we came to respect and value their culture. This sense of cultural self-esteem gave way to greater student autonomy and a growing amount of partnerships among the schools, businesses and communities that they serve.
We visited an experimental technology school, GENTE, where students weren’t grouped by grades but by laptops and with individualized pathways to proficiency. We also visited a school that counts Microsoft as one of its partners and more closely resembles a school that could have been created by the Google corporations. These partnerships underscore what value of culture looks like in practice as communities and business joined together – sometimes, with protest – to create a high-quality learning experience for every single child.
This was a visit that affirmed my belief that the way up is by looking inward and finding creative ways to immerse ourselves in the diverse cultures of our students. Only then can we change the vocabulary that stigmatizes some of our most potential-rich – instead of at-risk – students so that we can see that the achievement gap is really the opportunity space. In this space, there is room for us to make intentional choices to bring about deliberate excellence, and in the end, as Coach John Wooden once said, “It is the choices we make that make us.”