Ask, listen, and save our schools

In July 2011 I participated in the Save Our Schools rally and march in Washington. Summer temps soared and the humidity had no mercy on the thousands of teachers, parents, students, and concerned citizens assembled peacefully across from the White House, yet the crowd kept growing.

One marcher from Wisconsin lost her group while en route to 16th Street. When I asked what inspired her to attend the event, she noted that it didn't matter who she walked with, so long as she walked.

This is what drew so many to the rally: the desire to DO something.

No matter the different places from which we all came, or the diverse perspectives we held, we all wanted the same thing: an education system that readies our children with the skills and abilities necessary to meaningfully contribute to a free and democratic society.

Yes, actions speak louder than words. But words, too, matter. Language is a gift bestowed to humans to help us to communicate, connect, understand, and LEARN. Language fulfills one of our most basic needs: to have a VOICE, to be heard.

This is democracy: having our voice heard.

But in order to be heard, we must also LISTEN. After all, what good is a voice to deaf ears?

After the march, I attended a story-learning slam hosted by my colleague, Sam Chaltain, a DC-based educator, consultant, and author/editor of five books, including Faces of Learning: 50 Powerful Stories of Defining Moments in Education. Modeling the book's story focus, Sam asserted that we know more than we think we do about powerful learning. Furthermore, and consistent with the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, by sharing our high point experiences and studying what learning looks like at its best, we can transform teaching and learning in America.

Participants of the slam were invited to share their most powerful learning experiences in five minutes or less. During each story, the audience was challenged to listen for key themes and insights. The 90-minute event felt fleeting for as stories unfolded, more and more participants raised their hands eager to share. Regardless of our different paths, we were all connected, everyone with a story that began something like, “There was this teacher…”

If we want to change education for the better, we must be willing to do something, or more specifically, to speak and to listen. And, we must be willing to do so at the scale of the whole. We cannot dissect broken or missing pieces; we must instead see, listen to, and engage the diverse voices (educators, parents, students, policy makers, etc.) that make up our entire education system.

It's not about gathering the best answers but rather the best questions.

Change and inquiry are simultaneous. Improving education hinges on asking more positive, appreciative questions that create opportunities for story sharing, connection, and (dare I say) learning in a manner that diverse people can be seen – democracy in action.

Saturday's march and story slam was a fractal of our American society. Participants were richly diverse: liberals and conservatives; youth and grown adults; different religions, dialects, and color of skin – ALL for educating our beautifully complex, diverse, talented youth so that they can meaningfully contribute to a free and democratic society.

Every child should be seen and heard, as should every citizen who wants to preserve freedom and democracy – in our government, communities, workplaces, and schools, where the earliest, most critical seeds of democratic thinking take root.

Think about the story you're holding right now. What teacher or powerful learning experience stands out from your past? What does your story (or other’s) tell us about what we need to do more of, or differently, going forward? Imagine the impact these insights might have on transforming education at the scale of the whole.

Ask. Listen. Share your story. Be the change. Help create the democratic, free society you envision for our schools, workplaces, and the world.

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