Wrong-Way Corrigan’s Message to the Modern Educator

Lately I’ve been breaking out in a sweat at night, wondering if we have it all backwards. Like Wrong-Way Corrigan, the aviator who flew from Long Beach, California, to Floyd Bennett Field in New York City in 1938. He was supposed to fly back to Long Beach. Instead, he took off in the opposite direction to Ireland. Because of a dense cloud fog. (So he claimed.) There he is, halfway across the Atlantic when the clouds part and the whitecaps loom below. “Oops! And exactly how much gas do I have left in my tanks?”

Here’s the nightmare that’s ruining my peaceful rest: we’re all in this fog, preparing kids for the future – a test, a graduation ceremony, to “be ready for college and career,” as we Yankees put in our country, and we aren’t preparing the kids for RIGHT NOW. We’re heading out over the sea when we’re supposed to be soaring over the hills of Pennsylvania. What happened to our compass?

Think about it, how clever we are the way we chart our course: we design curriculum chock full of everything an adult will need to find work and be a citizen, all laid out in a neat ladder from Pre-K to Grade 12. We hire companies at rates that would bankrupt Fort Knox to make diabolical examinations for every rung, and for good measure throw in dozens of tests of our own design – to, you guessed it, prepare these pre-adults for the tests. Then, at worst, we just drill the kids so they pass the tests. At best, we develop instructional palaces to rival the Taj Mahal in their beauty, complexity and ability to excite wonder and engagement. We differentiate, we technologize, we personalize…you name it, all to get kids up that ladder that disappears into the great cumulus of college and career in the sky. And we do collect the data, making sure every inch of progress or shameful lack thereof is recorded, published and agonized over.

Meanwhile, what about our students right here right now? Are we with them while we crunch their numbers? In 1969 I was a Peace Corps volunteer strolling down the dusty street of a barrio in Guayaquil when a handful of excited Ecuadorians rushed out from their shanties to congratulate me, as an American, for landing a man on the moon. As soon as I got home I turned on the radio and heard the announcer declaring that the moon rocks gathered by the astronauts would be “analyzed to their total destruction.” Wait! I thought. What about the poor rocks? Now here I am again, wondering, “What about our poor students? Are they even there anymore?”

If indeed we’re heading to Ireland instead of Long Beach, as my gut and my insomnia tell me we are, I recommend a reversal in our thinking: Let’s not get to know the students so they’ll learn their algebra better, let’s teach the algebra so we know our students better.

It’s a matter of mindset. Here are two examples that might give us a bit of hope that this course correction can give us some collective hope:

My friend Tom Lynch, teaching Chaucer to his high school students a few years ago at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative studies, was getting frustrated. The students had been writing rap poems so they could understand The Canterbury Tales better. But they saw through his ruse easily enough. Yeah, right Mr. Lynch, “The Friar’s Tale.” Finally it occurred to him that he was cruising the wrong way. The students should be studying Chaucer so they could write rap poems better. A few weeks later, the kids were enthusiastically performing Middle-English-infused pieces for an audience in the school cafeteria.

At George Westinghouse High School, we showed Living Environment students David Attenborough’s You Tube video of the promotion for his “What a Wonderful World” BBC series. Beautiful images of the life on our planet dreamily flash by while Attenborough sings the Louis Armstrong song of the same name. Students were invited to pick something from the film that interested them and research it in the context of the various units throughout the year, not because it would be on the test, but because they liked it, not in the future, but now. We threw in a You Tube video of Louis Armstrong performing the song as well, which had them applauding. They were studying the curriculum to better understand what it was that interested them! Yes! Victory! Until the Darth Vader of “coverage” took over and they were lost in the miasma of meaningless memorization again.

I have more examples that provide rays of hope that we can actually be present with our students using the curriculum as a way to connect with them, rather than using our connections with them as way to learn the curriculum. Who knows, maybe I’ll delve into them in future blog posts. For now, though, I’m just wondering, What would it take to change direction?

In my reveries, I am seeing a social studies teacher teaching the students to annotate a letter from a US Civil War soldier so she can get to know them better through the “visible thinking ” (as the Project Zero people, among others, like to call it) that their notes provide. Sure, they’re learning about the civil war and will pass the New York State Regents exam with a higher score because of their human connection in the moment, but that’s not why she’s doing it. She is doing it because they are right there, fellow primates on the planet, and there isn’t a whole lot of time for them both to enrich their lives from what they learn of each other.

Ever deeper into my insomnia-quelling dreams, I see every teacher in a whole middle school (which happens to be called the Mott Hall Science and Technology Academy) using poetry, fiction…all forms of writing, so that the kids can use the content of their courses as the ingredients of self-expression, which will be published — the better to have the whole community know them, not for later, but for now. Imagine – an ode to photosynthesis that lets us know exactly who little Juan is.

My restful fantasies continue, with human fellowship blooming below me for its own sake in the gardens of a thousand classrooms as I fly over Appalachia on my way home to Long Beach, with plenty of fuel to burn.