The SLJ Leadership Summit and a Trip to South Dakota

I’ve been traveling a lot the past few weeks, and part of those travels took me to my home state of South Dakota. While there, I had the chance to catch up with classmates, a couple of whom are teachers in small town public schools. Education funding is lean in SD. By lean, I mean that the state is in its second year of a four-day school week in order to balance the budget. By small town, I mean fewer than 400 residents and a K-12 building that has two neighboring towns’ worth of kids in it. I asked one of those teachers what she’s doing to get ready for Common Core implementation. She laughed and shook her head and explained that the classroom demographic has changed so much there that she’s only been able to make it to one training session so far, and that given what teachers have to handle on a daily basis in just physically getting students through the day, she isn’t honestly sure how the school will implement the requirements. The state administration, she noted, is so far removed from the daily realities of her classroom that she isn’t surprised they lack a plan—and more importantly, funding.

A few days later, I flew to Philadelphia and was able to spend time with some of the very vocal national leaders among school librarians, teachers, and tech innovators. This included representatives from some of the largest districts in the country. It included cutting-edge speakers such as Chris Lehmann and Ira David Socol and Pam Moran, who are moving classes out of traditional comfort zones and into new modes of instruction. They are literally thinking out of the box and getting students to do so as well.

In having these trips so closely juxtaposed, I’ve been able to reflect on the challenges we truly face at a national level in attempting to make something universal fit at the very individual level of each school and district. At the Summit, Chris Harris raised a similar concern regarding funding and prices on e-products and needing to get things to a realistic point. He noted the economic disparity among school districts based on tax-centric funding. Rural schools don’t get the same resources as well-funded suburban schools. Urban schools are often in the same boat as rural. It’s true that how much is spent on a child’s education is directly determined by where that child lives.

But equable education isn’t just a location question. It’s also a question of all facilities, of staff and their leadership, of quality resources, and of those resources, books. It’s a question of which teachers a child encounters, which adults influence that child’s thinking, what books end up in that child’s hands. Does that teacher have enough time with each student? Does a child have adults who read to them daily? Is that child being given the tools to find his or her own information? Is curiosity being sparked in the face of that child’s adversities, regardless of what ilk those adversities may be?

This last question is the biggest one on my mind. When faced with a limited budget, material tools become limited. So if picking and choosing, I would choose literacy tools every time, hands down. Good content, and teaching kids how to find and curate that content on their own, seems like the surest bet for long-term returns on an educational investment that might be financially strapped in many areas. This is something I find to be a strength of CCSS: you don’t need a lot of highfalutin resources to teach kids how to think for themselves. (The adage “necessity is the mother of invention” comes to mind.) I believe it’s what Chris Lehmann founded the Science Leadership Academy on—in the face of more than $1 billion cut from their budgets. It’s working for those students—and it’s inspiring others beyond those walls.

Creativity, after all, is not bought—rather, it’s taught and nurtured and grown. As has been the case historically, access to good books may be the common denominator and the means by which individual schools can meet the national measure. What do you think? Is there anything more universal than the spark of a good book?

3 thoughts on “The SLJ Leadership Summit and a Trip to South Dakota

  1. Anonymous

    I teach at a Montessori Charter School in NC and we have survived and done well teaching our students without textbooks. We do use a lot of hands on materials and the children write in textbooks. Just think of all the money public schools could save if they got rid of text books and used great literature instead. Reading books are plentiful at our school in all genres. Teachers here also feel the pinch of balancing classroom behaviors and fitting in all the changes to the curriculum. I worry that our society concerns itself more with after school activities such as sports and fun rather than academics. Children are in school 5-7 hours a day, but if they struggle with a subject and don't get home until 6-7 at night, then the result is they are not getting the extra practice they need each night and are struggling to keep up in school. It is a difficult thing to balance fun with academics. How much is enough for your child and how much after school activity is too much?

  2. Jeanette W. Stickel

    I couldn't agree more. Books have inspired my speech students to become story-tellers. Many of these young children now have high hopes of becoming authors and that leads them to work on reading, writing and speaking skills.

  3. Patricia Stockland

    Jeanette and Anon–Thanks for the comments! Such great points. My teacher friend in SD connected with me after reading this post and shared a wonderful story of being able to spend some one-on-one time with a struggling student during a Friday in which regular classes aren't held. They were able to connect through a book; she noted how much she was able to teach from that experience beyond the unreliable means of other technologies. A book is a type of technology, yes, and such a universal one at that. I'm glad you're finding inspiration in your classrooms to open those learning doors!

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