“Where is the Pinnacle?” Revisited: Skill, Delight, and the Connected Mind

Oct 29th, 2015 | By | Category: Fall 2015, Featured

Bheadshotby Brendan McGrath
Grade 3 Teacher
Thomas Kenney School
Dorchester, MA
MA ’08

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Link to the full text of Brendan McGrath’s 2006 Bread Loaf Teacher Network Magazine article, “Where Is the Pinnacle?”

 

In the summer of 2005, while I was studying in a cubicle in Middlebury College’s library, I opened an email regarding my students’ Alaska state standards test scores. My students had shown massive growth with proficient scores, which was the first time in many years that had happened. I remember breaking down and crying in the library’s cubicle—not because I cared about the testing movement, but because the work we were doing, work where students took delight in their choices and their audiences for writing, was leading them to growth that showed up on these state tests. I did not teach to an exam. I put their needs and culture at the forefront of our classroom, and their growth in the state standards followed. When classrooms align themselves to accept the student and what the student brings to the classroom, success takes place. I remember one summer Michael Armstrong shared a quote from a book entitled Art and the Child: “Skill is born in delight.” When I think of the success I had with my students in Aleknagik, it had everything to do with that quote. Those students enjoyed the work. Our classroom was about them and met the demands of the state’s standards.

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Students from the fifth-eighth grade classroom venture via their “school bus”  into the frigid temperatures for some writing about their environment on a frozen Lake Aleknagik.

 

In 2006, I wrote an article for the Bread Loaf Teacher Network Magazine entitled, “Where is the Pinnacle?” The reference to the pinnacle came from my disbelief that each year, I thought, just seemed to get better and better. As each year ended, I would think there was no way the next could equal or surpass it in successes, but somehow the next year would. A decade later, as I revisit that article in our current educational culture, I’m inspired to celebrate and acknowledge the value of teacher networking to my own professional growth, and the the growth of my students. “Where is the Pinnacle?” is the beginning of a story I’m learning to tell, a story that departs from the media stereotypes of teachers lacking training and choosing the profession for summers off.

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Sasha braves the chill in the air as she writes while resting on Lake Aleknagik’s ice.

I am in my sixth year of teaching third grade in the  Boston Public Schools and in my 14th year of teaching in public schools. In early spring I was accepted into a doctoral program for Urban Schools, Leadership, and Policy Issues at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I began classes this summer with stellar professors, who have already pushed my thinking on critical issues dealing with education today. After three intense weeks this summer, I turned in my final paper for August’s last class and headed to Logan Airport to board a plane with a handful of other teachers connected to the Bread Loaf Teacher Network in Mumbai, India. We were there to work with the teachers and students at the Aga Khan Academy where Bread Loaf alum Lee Krishnan (’07) teaches high school English and literature. (See http://breadloafindia.org for an account of that trip.) To say the experience was unforgettable is an understatement.

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Brendan McGrath encourages a student from the Diamond Jubilee School in Mumbai, India.

When I share the details of my summer networking with non-educators, most seemed surprised. This is supposed to be my summer “off.” This is when teachers “sit around” at the beach and catch up on personal books. I have never been quite sure where that narrative came from, but it sure sounds nice. My summers have taken me on different paths. For five of them, I have been at Bread Loaf campuses completing my master’s degree. I have spent others traveling for our international conferences in Haiti, Mumbai, and Nairobi (although Nairobi was actually during a school vacation time in April). The summers I have not been working towards my master’s or participating in a conference, I  have traveled to Vermont, making connections with teachers and taking part in conversations with educators that affect the work in my classroom the following year. I don’t think my work as a teacher is the norm, but I don’t think I am an outlier either. Many great teachers are doing the same thing as I am.

I recently listened to Steven Johnson in a TED Talk say, “Chance favors the connected mind.” Immediately, I thought of the work of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN). The deeply rooted and burgeoning connections of the network and chances that have come from it are countless not only for me, but for each and every person involved. For myself, each year has brought about new opportunities that have informed and inspired my classroom and me. These opportunities have opened new doors for us. Even if our connections are small, they are always strands in the dynamic web that make this network transformative.

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Students from Aleknagik, Alaska, stand on the steps of the Capitol after their presentation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Seventeen years ago, I was a college dropout without a clue as to why I was spending money towards tuition. After finding my way towards education and teaching a few years later, I was finishing up my student teaching in rural Alaska and was in the midst of my first teaching assignment in Aleknagik, Alaska. Serendipitously, I found a connection that led me to the Bread Loaf School of English. This set of connections led me to the experiences I describe in “Where is the Pinnacle?” including leading a group of students, most of whom had never left their village, never mind Alaska, to travel to Washington, D.C., to present at the Smithsonian’s Rasmuson Theater at the Museum of the American Indian. They were invited to present a student-published book they had written about their village and culture as well as share poetry and art they had created for the event. Since then, each classroom I have been a part of has been a transformative experience because of a BLTN ethos that teaches me to learn from my students, just as I place them in contexts where they have meaningful choices and enact literacy in the context of communicating with peers. Each year has brought me in touch with new people, who are committed to the idea that “students are resources to be developed, not problems to be solved.”

This year, as I cultivate connections with my third grade urban classroom in Dorchester, MA, I’m again aware of signs of the achievement gap, inequities stemming from socioeconomic factors, and ever-higher demands for success measured by standardized testing data. Policy’s answers to it all are common standards and privatization of disadvantaged schools. Yet, if we as a profession of educators want to accept these simplistic answers, we will see the pinnacle. We will reach that ceiling of “success” and quickly begin a downward spiral and widen the gap even more. I don’t remember my students, whether in rural Alaska or urban Boston, ever coming into the classroom asking which standard we would be focusing on that day. They have always come into the classroom because they know it is a place about them. They come because they know they can express themselves through writing, or find themselves through a character in a story. They come into the classroom looking for and receiving love, delight, and skill.

Brendon Ramey shares why using electronic spaces for writing was powerful for him as a student in 2005.

In my career, the pinnacle is not a place I wish to reach. I want to keep striving for a higher level of effectiveness every day. I expect to be continuously learning, growing, and knowing that as long as students are at the center of the curriculum, there will not be some ceiling or pinnacle to my own achievement . . . and I am just fine with that.

Visiting educators at the Mumbai International Conference in front of the entrance to the Diamond Jubilee School: Alan Nuñez, Patricia Echessa Kariuki,  Rex Lee Jim, Mohsin Tejani, Brendan McGrath , Lee Krishnan, Rich Gorham, and Ceci Lewis.

 

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