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Simplicity and significance: a reflection from the AASSA conference

By Mary Davenport, High School English Teacher at Graded, The American School of São Paulo, Brazil

It’s been a good semester of professional learning and reflection.

First, the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco which I wrote about here. Then the week before last I attended the 2019 AASSA Conference in Santiago, Chile. This year’s theme was all about transforming partnership, but really, the whole thing kinda of blew up what I thought of education and my role in education.

Ya know, no biggie.

I learned lots of stuff about visible thinking and co-teaching and international mindedness and how exciting it is to find a PF Changs and Chilis in a foreign land.

I really learned a lot from Diane Sweeney. She was both a keynote and a workshop leader. Her sessions inspired me to incorporate more choice and DEEP learning in my classrooms. On a philosophic level that I haven’t quite figured out yet, I came away from her session with the deep (and painful) conviction that I overscaffold for my students and rob them of important opportunities to wrestle with the discomfort and messiness of not knowing. She addressed the idea of The Learning Pit…but, ouch, I am so. good. at. building. bridges. over that pit. Still chewing on that…

On a practical level, her sessions also helped to crystallize something I always struggle with… objectives and success criteria in the English classroom. I always feel like reducing the ART of language–which is what I teach, right?–into success criteria is… well…just that: reduction. I mean, come on, that’s easy for math and science, but humanities??? But her session helped me to approach it from a different way: where are concrete gaps my students struggle with, and how can I use those gaps as an entry point into this new approach? One of those gaps I see over and over is vague and generalized “analysis” of the effects of features in text. English teachers knowwwhat-I’mmm-saying: “It gets the reader’s attention..” or “It paints an image in the reader’s mind.” Ugh.

But honestly, my teaching world was rocked with two sessions. I still can’t stop thinking about them.

The first was a preconference I attended with Kevin Bartlett: From Cultures of Compliance to Cultures of Cocreation. I knew I was in the right session when he started with “culture work is identity work” and a deep focus on authenticity and storytelling. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m all about culture: in my classroom and among adults where I work. It is the. everything.

Two echoes from his session still resonate with me: simplicity and significance. Reduce what we’re doing to focus only on what matters most.

At one point, he asked us in table groups to discuss: “what would you fight to teach?”

Not once did English, or Science, or Math, or History come up.

Instead we talked about wellness, sustainability, communication, patterns.

Yes please. Although, admittedly, this feels much larger than me in terms of systemic application, I can move to concept-based teaching within my class.

This session paired really well with the highlight of the conference for me: Mike Johnston’s sessions about design systems for sustainable education. What’s system thinking? That was my question exactly when walking into the session. It’s all the rage these days, isn’t it? Design thinking. Systems thinking.

But man, I now get it.

And honestly, what made it click for me was this opening question:

What do you want the world to be like in 50 years?

Of course, everyone joked, nervously, by saying: existing. But we also said peaceful, loving, and all those other pipe dream responses. And at once, almost like all of our collective cynicism embodiment spoke, someone commented that we’ve always wanted that, but it’s not happened yet.

His response: we don’t design schools for that.

Mike (Johnston) drop. Ha (insert snort-smirk here).

I’m guilty. When I prepare my lessons, I am mostly thinking about two things: IB and college. And yes, while that is future-thinking, it is so. very. narrow. And ultimately, in 50 years, I don’t care if my students remember what a simile is or if they finished Othello. I care that they know how to manage their time. That they know how to read texts the world as a reflection or criticism of themselves…and respond appropriately. That they see patterns and capitalize on them accordingly. I care that they are good people. That they see beyond themselves to a larger community. That they make a difference in the world. That they love wholly and forgive fiercely and laugh beautifully and breath fully.

I care that they have meaningful strategies to protect their hearts and the hearts of those they love from a sucky world.

How do I teach like that.

Which takes me back to systems thinking. Teaching like that is more than just fixing a problem. First, I have to see the problems fully. I need to examine the causes and effects of the issue with a nature, economic, societal AND well-being lens.

Whoa. That’s a lot.

True statement. But…I am excited at the serendipity in the universe though. Just this week, unrelated to AASSA, the school I serve participated in a Think Tank to reflect on what we’re doing and make changes to do it better. More information is still coming on the results of that, but most participants I’ve talked to have summed it up through these words: time, depth not breadth, people. That sounds like it aligns to my reflection, doesn’t it?

But again, I go back to what’s in my control. My classroom. My instruction. My world of students.

And for them, I’ll fight for simplicity and significance.

I’ll fight for what matters.

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