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Off the Beaten Path

I am currently reading Jonathan Kozol’s book Letters to a Young Teacher. In this book, Kozol is writing letters to Francesca, a young teacher who is facing the many academic and emotional challenges of the first year of teaching. His letters are a fascinating insight into his thoughts and opinions about a wide variety of topics facing education today – politics, testing, racial separation, and more. He made a great analogy in a section I was reading yesterday, and it really resonated with me. Kozol said that the testing movement is kind of like a 16-city European tour. So true… so true…

Think about it…bus

What are teachers asked to do? We have a scripted agenda that requires that every student see thirteen cities (or grade levels) in 13 years. As we pass through each city, we point things out to students that are on the list of approved sites. It’s “drive by learning” at its fullest.

But wait…

Have you ever been on one of those tours? You sit in a bus all day long. They let you out for a little lunch (in a designated location) and some recess (maybe a guided museum tour or some shopping). You see it all, and you experience nothing. If you stray off the prescribed path to follow a sound or smell that interests you, you are chided by the tour guide. Heaven forbid you return to the bus a minute later than the agenda states because “we just won’t make it to our next stop on time.” When you get home from one of these trips, what emotional and sensory connections have you made? Have you created authentic memories of your experience or have you simply created a slideshow of stagnant photo clips?

I don’t know about you, but…

The year(s) that I get to have students on my bus tour of a new grade and curriculum will not be a time to strap on their seat belts and watch out the window. I don’t want students’ time with me to be merely a checklist of sites to see. I want them to get off the bus, wander down a side street, stop and have a local dish, and chat with the natives. I don’t want memories to simply be a photo. They should include a sensory immersion into curriculum and culture, one that is rich in authentic and self-constructed meaning. I don’t even mind if we get lost once in a while, for it is in those un-scripted moments that we learn the most about the place in which we are immersed (and have the most fun). In each year of schooling, just as in foreign travel, there are things to see, people to meet, and new languages to learn. This cannot be achieved from the inside of a bus.


So where do you teach? Are you a 13 city tour guide, or do you throw the itinerary out the window?

Photo credits: Paris Cafe (ferminet) and double decker bus (wallyg)

I guess I wasn’t quite finished… a bit of a follow-up to this post. Your many questions and comments here and on Twitter have kept my mind reeling about this post all day long. Let me expand.

Many people ask me, “How can you throw the itinerary out the window? There are standards. There are tests. I need to keep my job.” Trust me. I need my job too, but I can’t serve my conscious and teach in a way that could be recorded and played back day by day. I am still thinking in terms of my previous travel analogy (thank you Jonathan Kozol for getting me thinking this way!).

I guess asking if you throw the entire agenda out the window wasn’t quite what I was thinking. I want you to visit the same cities, but make these visits in an entirely different way than as if you were a tape recorder on a bus who times out what to say and when to say it based on a rote and planned schedule. Tour guides sit in the front seat, rarely turning around to see who is watching, taking notes or even sleeping. They read off a script that doesn’t take into account the previous experiences or interests of the people on their tour. For all practical purposes, there could be a pre-recorded version of the tour that gets played over and over. The tour itself drives by the fronts of the buildings and monuments. Tourists see the front walls of the Louvre without ever experiencing the art that lies inside, other than possibly the pictures in the brochure they are given. How many of us teach that way? If the kids don’t understand, we drive by again and again – wondering why the students don’t get it any better or don’t show more interest. It’s amazing that more students aren’t experiencing motion sickness from the drive-by teaching!

Instead, go to France. Visit the Louvre, but get off the bus! Touch the glass of I.M. Pei’s glass entrance. Discuss the juxtaposition of the modern architecture and the classical. Go inside the Louvre and soak in the enormity of The Coronation of Napoleon as emporer. Stand in front of the Mona Lisa, without speaking, and try to figure out who makes her smile in such a way. Sit at the cafe in the courtyard and munch on a croque-monsiuer and sip a glass of Orangina. People watch. Figure out where to buy your souvenirs to get the best deal. Wander down a side street and discover sidwalk artists and musicians who live to tell their stories of French culture and beauty. In the classroom, visit the same places (or objectives) but experience them.

When you return home from this trip and attempt to pass through customs (or that end of year standardized test), which student do you think will remember more? The one who sat on a bus for the whole year passing by the same monuments month after month? Or the student who got off the bus and experienced the trip first hand? It doesn’t have to be a question of rebelling against the system completely and going to Timbuktu instead of Paris – just get off the bus!


18 Responses

  1. Great connection Kelly! I haven’t had my first experience in my own classroom, but I hope that I am a teacher who is able to throw the itinerary out the window and provide my students with authentic learning experiences. I think this experiential learning is the way to teach, or shall I say guide learning. Thanks for the awesome post!

  2. What a great analogy! I keep asking myself why politicians expect us to do more, more, more instead of delving deeper into understanding, or getting of the bus as you put it. We keep comparing ourselves to international schools but our system is not set up like theirs. If they are successful, can we not learn from them?

  3. Based on your reflection and connections, this is a book I would love to put on my, LISTEN, list. And, the challenge for new teachers, just right teachers and old teachers—and new, just right, and old administrators is:

    How do you make the required itinerary (mandated testing we will long be struggling with) a very tiny part of the rich learning that will take place during the other portions of the school year. Does he get to these suggestions, Kelly?

    Excellent post. You are, among many things, also a thoughtful & skilled writer.

  4. You have captured the challenges of teaching in such a wonderful analogy. I teach Kindergarten and I am constantly juggling the pursuit of meaningful learning with the required material and seemingly never-ending assessments! I try to be a keen observer of my students and incorporate their interests into my lessons so that I can keep them engaged to learn all of the required standards. Good teaching is an art, as you so beautifully present through your analogy. Thank you!

  5. This is a great analogy for probing our beliefs about teaching and it stimulated my thinking about effective instructional strategies. When visiting other cities, a really great tour could include some guiding questions/thoughts about the place and then the tourists could “wander” to make meaning of the place they are visiting. The best educators I have encountered do just that…they provide a context for learning including learning targets and essential questions and then guide students toward making connections and meaning. A well-crafted curriculum guide is constructed with those essential questions, goals, learning targets and then teachers use their creativity to guide students. Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. […] One of my new found twitterers, and teacher, has an awesome blog, and today she writes about,Off the Beaten Path. But, not only did I learn something new, I found out a bit about myself. Kelly […]

  7. […] Here is the original:  Off the Beaten Path […]

  8. You have great insight-what a perfect analogy. How fortunate your students are that they get to leave the bus and explore. So many teachers fear the unknown in the unstructured exploration-they keep doing what they have always done-whether it’s effective or not (and most times it’s not!) I guess this remains our challenge in education-getting the folks who are at the top to see the value in self-guided tours. If only more teachers had your courage and insight… You inspire many of us, Kelly. Thank you!

  9. I also found you on twitter. I’ve taught grades 1-8 for 22 years. I love your analogy–and the expansion. “Getting off the bus” is important because every student will get a little something different from each stop. Why play tourguide and tell them over the bus loudspeaker what you want them to see or point out just one part–? The problem is we are so worried about “covering” the curriculum that we forget that “covering” isn’t teaching. I wish we could slow down, let the students experience and reflect, and just guide their learning. They may actually end up going further than we ever expected. Many students would actually find it so interesting they would return again on their own.
    More and more, students aren’t allowed to do that…and for that matter, neither are teachers. Our staff development has an agenda every single time. Left on their own, teachers collaborate in amazing ways…for example, on twitter and your blog…Just my thoughts.

  10. Kelly,
    You are a truly amazing teacher! Not only do you effectively teach your students, but you freely share your insights with others. I absolutely LOVE the bus ride analogy. Yes! Throw out the itinerary! Scripted lesson plans, curriculum/pacing guides are wonderful tools for those who’ve never taken the trip, but what a disservice it would be to our students to experience the world one dimensionally when it begs to be tasted, touched, smelled, seen, and heard! I hear you, Kelly! Keep it coming! You have a gift! Thank you for posting this one. I look forward to more!

  11. This is a fantastic analogy, and it’s resonating with me in a thousand different ways. Your suggestion that we don’t merely throw out the agenda but shift how we approach our travel is incredible. I would also think that when we visit a while and explore with greater depth, more standards are addressed in the process. Teach/travel “big”….great post!

  12. I applaud what you have written here. I think it all goes back to the quote on your blog header, “The goal of education is to teach us how to think, rather than what to think.” The push for standardized testing and rigid curriculum is forcing teachers and kids to be on that bus…driven at a faster pace than ever before… so that more and more “terrain” can be covered throughout the year. Real learning isn’t about schedules, minutes, or page numbers in a text book. It’s about experiences, moments of discovery, and excursions outside of the bus.

  13. One of my class’s favorite field trips is to the botanic gardens. They all absolutely love it. The kids that get the most out of it are the ones that get the docents who go “off the bus” and let the kids get up to the plants, rub the tree bark, get on their knees and smell the flowers. Do these groups get to all of the gardens? Nope, but every year the majority of the kids in these groups are the ones who go back to the botanic gardens to get to the parts that they didn’t get at and guess what they drag their families with them! After two weeks of our state testing thank you for reminding me what my job is as a teacher. I gotta go and rework my lesson plans!!!
    p.s. I’m glad I have a principal that allows me take my kids off the bus.

  14. @Derek – I think you make a great point when you added that you have a principal that allows you to get off the bus. I think that’s the key. I have one who lets me get off the bus AND wants me to help get other teachers off the bus. It’s wonderful because I feel like I’m getting to do a lot of coaching now. Evangelize Derek!

  15. @Angela & KTvee – Thanks for your comments. As friends, I truly value your opinions. Part of the reason I added to the post later on Sunday was the bit about standards. It’s not about teaching more or less, it’s about teaching differently. If we teach for the reasons that we all went into teaching in the first place, everything would be a-ok.

  16. @J – I totally agree with you about modeling these learning opportunities for teachers. We treat professional development for teachers in a way that would be crucified if it were in the classroom! Learning must be personal, no matter the level.

  17. Thanks so much for your comments! I can’t tell you how much I learn as I rethink, reformulate and organize my own thinking. I’m wishing I could meet up with all of you “off the bus.”

  18. Hiya, Kelly. I wonder if you’ve read Sandra Tsing Loh’s column from the Atlantic about some of these ideas. I’d be interested in your impressions of Ms. Loh’s analysis—and maybe your students would have some intriguing takes on it, too.


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