The Complex Alchemy of Helping Students Learn

When I first started working on K-12 policy, about 10 years ago in the charter school movement, my favorite activity was visiting schools.  As a non-educator, I found it intimidating yet exhilarating to go into a school building and see what was going on.  Making a school hum is such a complex task and I loved the way the school administrators and teachers would break it down for me.

Empty classroom photo from Wiki CommonsI still don’t pretend to be an expert on the complex alchemy of teaching students. But now when I walk into a school, I pretty quickly get an idea of what I am going to find.

There are schools that have the culture of scholarship lurking in every corner of the building. It’s clear that students “get” the reason they are there.  In other schools, that energy and focus is found inside classrooms but not in the halls, cafeteria or other common spaces.  Same goes for the administrative space—some just give a visitor a 110% vibe of love of learning and clarity of purpose.  Others are well run, efficient but lack that zing.

Rarely have I visited a school in real crisis or chaos (they don’t let outsiders into those buildings, do they?)  so I’m not suggesting that any of the schools I visit are that painful 5% of truly awful schools.  But, what makes the difference between a school that soars and a school that plugs along?

Believing in the Wisdom of Teachers

I launched VIVA Teachers because I know the answer to these questions lies in the wisdom and work of classroom teachers.  It’s the sum of each teacher’s work in each class they teach that adds up to a school.  And somewhere between the syllabus for each class, the mix of classes a student takes, and the instruction that happens in every room every day is the DNA of how that school grabs its students and helps them tackle the work of scholarship.

But, students bring a lot to the table too.  Without a doubt their homes, their neighborhoods and their family resources are a big part of what they bring. There’s something else too—their spirit, their perspective, their yearnings, their ability to see long and short term, to sit down, to wrestle with a problem or an issue until they “get it.”

How do you describe this set of traits in students? How do you measure their use of those skills and “social intelligence” in the work of being in school and learning? It’s a topic that fascinates me and is increasingly grabbing academic attention and the headlines.

VIVA NJ Charter Teachers Idea Exchange

I’m so proud that VIVA Teachers is partnering with The New Jersey Charter Schools Association to give New Jersey charter school teachers a chance to explore these questions and bring their hard-earned experience from their classrooms to the fore via the VIVA NJ Charter Teachers Idea Exchange, which launches Sept. 17.

I can’t wait to hear what these committed teachers say and how they think we can translate those truths into a better understanding of what makes a school succeed.  I’m especially excited that we have the nation’s foremost researchers from The University of Pennsylvania in on the discussion.  Talk about bringing research into your classroom work!

Thank you for taking up the important work of educating New Jersey’s children and thank you for sharing your knowledge with the rest of us so we can make sure every single child in NJ has a truly equal opportunity to learn.

Spread the word. Share this post!

Comments (1)

  1. Franco Walls

    I look forward to what the NJ Charter Teachers bring to VIVA also…the perspective of a Charter School teacher combined with researchers from UPenn should add to the already diverse educational experience being shared here.


Leave a comment