Educational Leadership – Lessons from Learners

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That’s all we talk about here. Learning. Your learning. My learning. All of us learning.” Laronda let out a mock moan and grinned at me. Here is Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado. Eagle Rock is both a high school for students who have not succeeded in their previous learning environments and a place where educators can study how to keep young people in school, reengage them in learning, and help them graduate and do something worthwhile with their lives.

This tuition-free, residential, year-round high school, funded by the American Honda Education Corporation, enrolls students from across the United States. Often these students’ home lives were chaotic. They dropped out or were expelled; they involved themselves in drugs, alcohol, gangs, petty crime, and running away.

Despite their pasts, these students have their eye on the future and a passion to succeed. Eagle Rock gives them a place where they can achieve success.

I asked them one day last May to write to me about learning: What do you need in order to learn? What prevents you from learning? In what ways has Eagle Rock helped you learn? Here are some of their answers.

Students as Learners

Self-Esteem

Students are quick to blame themselves for their difficulty in learning. Many of the Eagle Rock students referred to a lack of patience; if they failed at first, they imagined inevitable failure. Many mentioned their problems with self-esteem. Tasha wrote, “The only thing that prevents me from learning is myself and my insecurities.” Ashanti commented,

Sometimes I tell myself that I’m not good enough or smart enough. I stop learning when I feel like my best is not good enough. I stop learning when I give up on myself.

Raci claimed that “being afraid of knowing, scared of failing, not allowing myself to do what I’m capable of doing, building walls, and making excuses” prevented her from learning.

Accountability

Students want to take responsibility for their learning. Naheem wrote,

I used to blame it on the teachers; now I believe I was responsible for what I chose not to do. You can’t learn if you don’t want to.

Many students attributed their success at Eagle Rock to the school’s high expectations and insistence that they take charge of their own learning. Amber said,

Eagle Rock shows me that the responsibility for my learning is in my own hands. I am expected to perform at my highest capability. . . . There are no excuses.

Personalized Learning

Ultimately, students want the learning to be about them. They want to find themselves and their own interests in the content that they learn. Most students care as much about personal growth as academic growth. Evan said he needed to learn “how to be a person I can admire.” Kanoa wrote,

One thing I feel that is not stressed as much as the academics [in other schools] is self. I feel like it’s really important to learn who you are and become the person you wish to be. You must know how you affect other people and learn to appreciate and be comfortable with yourself.

Eagle Rock has both personal and academic growth requirements for graduation. Through both, Eagle Rock helps students by “constantly checking on what changes I’m making in my life,” according to Daniel.

The Instructional Program

Teachers Who Care

Students want teachers who are passionate about their own learning and teaching. Ashley stated, “I need people who actually care about what they are teaching and care whether I am learning.” Vionel commented, “If I see that passion, I become more involved.” Students also want teachers who believe in them. Desirée wrote,

When a teacher said, “You can’t” or “You’re not capable of doing something,” I automatically gave up.

Madison sensed a put-down whenever a teacher criticized her. “It was like they were saying I wasn’t good enough.”

Teachers who exert their power and authority in a formal way are a big problem for many students. As Ally wrote,

I feel that education should be about the student, not the teacher. Traditional teaching methods place the teacher on too high a shelf, give the teacher supernatural powers, and then make the teacher the focus of the classroom. The focus of the classroom should always be on the student.

Eagle Rock students want the situation equalized. “We should all be learners,” according to Ashanti. “Everyone, teacher or student, should learn something new every day from each other.” Amanda stated,

Teachers at Eagle Rock are not called “Mrs.,” “Mr.,” or “Dr.” Everybody goes by first names, and that makes me feel better. . . . What turns me off is when teachers use their adultness or authority to make the students listen to them. Something that I hate is when a teacher threatens a student. When that happens to me, I just stop listening.

Above all, students want to develop a relationship with teachers. They want someone who is more like a friend who cares about them and their learning.

Active Learning

Students want to be engaged. Often, that means doing hands-on, experiential work. Joel contrasted learning from a book and learning from an experience: “Not until I have had an experience of my own . . . can I have a deep understanding of the topic.”

In schools they had previously attended, the students had experienced learning as more passive. Rafael confessed that he stopped learning when he discerned that “we had to learn the same thing over and over.” Ashley added, “I don’t need to be sitting for an hour and a half listening to someone speak without being able to ask questions.”

Students become engaged when they are involved in teaching a class, perhaps as a coteacher, or perhaps their own special class under the guidance of an instructor. A student who spent a trimester in Vietnam through a service scholarship, for example, proposed and taught a class about his experience.

The Learning Environment

Safety

Students need to feel safe, and not just physically safe. Desirée commented, A safe environment means that I can be wrong and it is OK. It also means that if I don’t understand something, I can feel comfortable to ask questions without being attacked by my peers or teachers for doing so.

Carlton wrote that he needed to be able to ask for help when he needed it and not have “people make fun of me for not understanding something that might be simple to them, but not to me.” Students also need an environment where they don’t have to worry about appearing “too smart.” As Naheem said, “Eagle Rock is a place where it is all right to be smart-you don’t feel out of place.”

High Expectations

Students want their peers to be as dedicated to learning as they are. Many Eagle Rock students cited distractions as a reason that they did not learn in their previous environments. Naeha stated,

A lot of my learning depends on the people who are around me. If there are those who goof off in class, then I am most likely going to follow their lead.

Amanda said,

One of the biggest things that helps me is having other students around me that care and are willing to help me when or if I ask for it.

The Eagle Rock community focuses on learning through a set of principles called 8+5=10. These are eight themes, five expectations, and ten commitments that all students agree to when they enter the school. Strong among the principles is the focus on intellectual discipline, an expanding knowledge base, and a healthy mind, body, and spirit. Academic and personal experiences reinforce the expectations and commitments every day. Sarah suggested,

Eagle Rock is constantly challenging my comfort zones and pushing me to learn both personally and academically. It respects me by expecting me to learn.

Self-Directed Learning

Students want to be in charge of their own learning. They learn because they—not someone else—are ultimately in charge. Angel said, “I want the tools that can make me a self-directed learner.” Tanya expressed delight that her learning is

no longer formulized but unique and truly my own. The most important gift Eagle Rock has given me is the ownership of my education.

Many students mentioned both small class sizes (average size at Eagle Rock is 12 students) and school size (maximum of 96 at Eagle Rock) as important to their self-directed learning. Ben commented,

Things that prevented me from learning are commonly found in other schools. Large classes, disrespectful teachers, and being forced to be there.

Eagle Rock helps students learn by offering them lots of choices. Students choose to come to Eagle Rock; they choose, daily, to stay. They choose to earn credit and to graduate. Tom expressed this baldly:

There is nothing you have to learn. Everything I have learned is by choice. Nothing can be forced upon you. You always have a choice.

The Voices of Students

As you read what Eagle Rock students said about school and learning, I hope you remembered that these are the students to whom we must listen. They are the students who were unmotivated in their classes, the ones who were labeled “at risk.” These students sat passively in the backs of our classrooms or acted out their disaffiliation through disruptive behavior. These are the students for whom school did not work—and we cannot afford to keep losing them from our systems.

Don’t Treat Me Like a Number

I grew up in a family of seven. After my father’s murder when I was 8, my mother was forced to work 12-hour days, leaving seven children to do as they pleased. My older brothers didn’t like school, so I adopted their attitude. Even as a kindergartner, I was removed from class because I didn’t want to be there. My attendance record for my 9th grade class for a period of 6 weeks was 15 days in school.

The system seemed to focus on me and others as numbers, deciding how intelligent we were on the basis of attendance, grades, and GPA. This system made me very angry because people who didn’t even know me were judging my intellect. I despised everything about school, especially teachers who taught “by the book.” It seemed at times that they didn’t even understand what they were reading aloud to us.

However, I had two teachers who really inspired me to do well. My science teacher, Mr. Wong, helped me as much as possible. He didn’t yell at me and give me grief about missing class; he compromised and gave me different work. Mr. Kruger taught me architectural design and mechanical drawing; I fell in love with architectural design because of him. When I showed up to class after being gone for three days, he would politely greet me and show me what I missed, and I excelled in his class. Mr. Kruger taught according to the attitude of the whole class; some days he would teach at the board; some days he would let us work away on our projects.

One of the reasons I think Eagle Rock is working for me is because of the individuality. I am not judged on my GPA, test scores, or grades because we have few tests and no grades. I am a learner—a person, not a number. Because we have small classes, we can find out how much each of us already knows about the subject. Then, if any student knows more than the rest of the students, that student teaches the rest of the class.

Hierarchy was a serious issue with me in my other schools. At Eagle Rock, the tables are round to eliminate any front or back of the classroom and to make us all equal. Teachers at Eagle Rock are tools rather than authorities. They are not worried if we doodle or lean back in our chairs; they are worried about our learning, whether or not we understand. Our history teacher invites us to attack his lectures. He creates board games, such as Concentration, so that we can remember Latin vocabulary, and Risk, so that we can remember American history.

No system will ever be perfect, but every system should give learners the tools to learn. That’s education. It is our responsibility to use these tools. —Patrick O’Friel, Eagle Rock Student

Teach Me to Fish, Feed Me for Life

When I was younger, I never thought of school as a place to learn. I always thought of school as a place to be watched and told what to do. If teachers in my earlier years of school had emphasized the learning aspect instead of the discipline aspect of school, I would be much further along in my understanding of my education.

This is one of the reasons that Eagle Rock works for me and many other students. At Eagle Rock, the term “life-long learner” is used frequently. Obviously, students learn in traditional schools, but it’s a different type of learning. Here, I want to seek out information for myself instead of waiting for someone else to spoonfeed it to me in the forms of lectures and dittoes. When I learn a concept from experiencing it, the concept becomes a memory—like going to the beach with your friends—something that you enjoyed and won’t forget.

I remember being in 4th grade in a New York City public school and staring at a poster that my teacher had up in her room. It read, “Give a man a fish, feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life.” I didn’t realize the irony at the time. There I was, sitting in a class while the teacher fed me only for the day.

For a teacher to instill in students the desire to direct their own learning, the teacher must first teach the importance of learning. At Eagle Rock, the whole system is built around the need for students to be self-directed learners. Teachers encourage working independently and they reward independent work with credit. They rarely give a direct answer to a question; they usually encourage students to find answers for themselves. Teachers at Eagle Rock also encourage students to teach whole classes, based on the idea that the best way to learn a topic is to teach it.

As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to be a teacher. Specifically, I want to teach elementary school students in the inner city. Now that I am experiencing alternative methods of education, my desire to teach has intensified. —Luke Sledge, Eagle Rock Student

Show Me the Joy in Learning

Before I came to Eagle Rock, I learned to play the system. The private and public education system taught me that school was a superficial game to be won. This game was based on pretending to be perfect, pleasing others, and scoring higher than my opponents. My learning consisted of producing thoughts without thinking.

I attended classes merely to attain a grade that meant that I showed up, swallowed information, and regurgitated it. This is what I like to refer to as “educational bulimia.” I kept no personal or academic nutrition from the subject. On my report card, I seemed to be an excellent student who was involved and highly intelligent. But actually, I was an ignorant young woman who had no knowledge of self. I flew to an imaginary world of drugs where I lived in a blurry vision, where I felt alive. I lived a double life: superficial by day, fantasy by night.

I began to appreciate and utilize learning through my art and English teachers. They showed me how to find myself within my subject. They gave me my first taste of true knowledge. I decided to change my life to give it meaning and purpose. I came to Eagle Rock searching for those things. What I found was that through my learning I could give those things to myself.

I am not afraid to admit that I love to learn. The greatest gift of our lives is to learn and teach. However, the education system is set up for failure. The untamed wild curiosity of youth is wasted by teaching discipline and basic subjects.

Learning only needs one ingredient to make it meaningful: passion. Show students that they are what they know, and their attitudes will change. Finding the joy in my education was like returning to childhood, when imagination and creativity were a way of life. I believe that any person with passion cares about learning, whether they realize it or not.

If I were to advise a lost learner, I would say, “Find what makes you happy, share it, do what makes you feel alive.” That is the root of all learning. —Hayla DeLano-Nuttall, Eagle Rock Student

Show Me You Care

In my other high school, I didn’t get very much encouragement, and I just didn’t care about what my teachers said. My peers gave me the encouragement that I needed, and I only cared about what they thought.

I have found that in a great many instances, teachers and schools fail to do much of anything to motivate students. Teachers often show up for the paycheck and then leave. They don’t seem to love their jobs or the students. They are unwilling to see the light hidden in many; they only look at the talents that are blatantly obvious in some students. This is not to say that teachers are totally responsible for the attitudes or the work ethic or their students’ desire to learn. However, teachers are responsible to teach in and out of class, just as an EMT would offer emergency medical assistance on and off the job, regardless of whether or not he or she got paid.

I can think of many times when a teacher could have made a difference and didn’t. I spent several weeks trying to get my geometry teacher to help me after school. For a long time, he told me he would be there and he never was. However, in algebra I had a teacher who offered me help every day after school, and I passed because of what he taught me outside of class. As a teacher you have to ask yourself, Why am I here?

Here at Eagle Rock, the relationships between teacher and student are very different. We are all on a first-name basis, we eat together, and we know each other well. These things create a safe, more comfortable environment for students to learn in.

Things that work at Eagle Rock won’t necessarily work at your school. I think, though, that it all comes down to how much effort students and teachers are willing to put out to help each other. A student has to want to learn, and the only way a teacher can help is by creating the most loving environment possible for the student to grow in. —Shaun Meehan, Eagle Rock Student

Volume 60 Number 1, September 2002, Pages 64-69

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2002 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

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