Explaining Small Schools with Big Ideas… Using Big Ideas Carried in Small Words

Explaining Small Schools with Big Ideas…
Using Big Ideas Carried in Small Words

In the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, there is one scene that is far and away my favorite in the entire movie.  In it, Elliot plays sick from school and lures ET back to his house with M&Ms. That evening he introduces his sister and brother to his new friend, and they discuss where in the universe earth was relative to where ET came from. ET demonstrates his amazing powers to levitate and move objects.

The next morning, as Elliot and his older brother are walking to school, Elliot’s brother asks, “Did you tell him [ET] about school?”

Eliot replies, “School?! How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?”


In her book Schooling America, Patricia Albjerg Graham, Dean Emeritus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explains school in the context of twentieth century American history and looks back over the history of schools and the purposes for going to school. She divides the history of American schooling since 1900 into four eras:

1900-1920: Assimilation
American schools taught a standardized curriculum aimed at establishing a common language and set of values (punctuality, honesty, hard work) in an effort to promote the growing industrial base.

1920-1954: Adjustment
In this period we began to be more child-centered using testing and tracking into general, academic and vocational tracks as curriculum became more flexible and matched to individual needs.

1954- 1983: Access

The focus during this period following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was on providing equal opportunity to all students.

1983- Present: Achievement and Accountability
In this period, the focus has been on how to close the achievement gap and ensure that students can pass state content standards-based tests as they progress through the grades and graduate.

In each distinct era, schools were successful in many aspects – and also in each era, new problems emerged.   Graham observes that one consistent theme that runs through the history of schooling is a “conviction that the public should control education which comes from Thomas Jefferson’s observation that a democracy was dependent on a knowledgeable and virtuous public.” (p. 5)

Her book was uplifting to read even as it surfaced the emerging problems left unsolved by our approaches to education. In America, school and learning has always mattered. And it is to schools and education that we turn when we want to see changes in our future.

As we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and the end of 2009 (a year many will be happy and relieved to see recede into memory), Jefferson’s observation stands.  Our democracy – our future – requires an educated electorate.  It requires virtuous citizens and, I would add, it requires that successful schools must continue to have a supply of knowledgeable and virtuous teachers.

Right now at Lawrence School, we are in the midst of an exhilarating strategic communication initiative that we call “Telling the Lawrence Story”.  This project involves faculty and staff as well as trustees, and even several key people who serve as thoughtful advisors and editors who are not part of our school community. The first goal we are working on is to explain what we do, who we serve, and how we do it.

We are explaining school to ourselves—so we can explain ourselves to others.

Similar to 300 or so other independent LD schools across the country, Lawrence serves a niche mission driven by a unique viewpoint on the work of schools.  We see many instances of what can go wrong for students in the general education environment, and we have used that knowledge to construct appropriate learning environments and develop instructional approaches and practice that make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks for both students and teachers.  Teachers in these schools have become students—and students have become our teachers.

In 2005, the International Dyslexia Association published a special edition of their journal “Perspectives”, edited by Earl Oremus, Head of Marburn Academy, describing the founders of several of these schools – pioneers who acted with courage and conviction to establish schools for children who were underserved by the general education venues in their communities.

In that special issue, Kathleen Burke-Fabrikant, Executive Director of the Royce Learning Center in Savanah, GA. wrote an article titled “The Impact of Private LD Schools on American Education” and in it, she wrote the following:

Best estimates place the total number of independent LD schools in the US at less than 350. Of the 56 million school age children, private LD schools probably serve less than 75,000, or about one seventh of one percent. It is then an extraordinary testament both to the dedication of those who have devoted their lives to building LD schools, and to the power of the ideas they have advocated regarding the education of children with learning differences that their impact on the landscape of American education has been so profound. “

How did the LD school community do this? What explains our success both with our students and with our industry?

Buried somewhere in the massive volumes of educational research, reams of statistics, and publications and position papers about school, there perhaps lies an immutable, unchanging truth about how and when school works for our kids.  It applies in any school designed for any purpose at any time in our history.

Our schools work when a teacher connects with a child in the context of some type of challenge associated with learning something new (being introduced to new curriculum, for example).  Learning happens in the social and intellectual space that knowledgeable, virtuous teachers create between themselves and their students.  Lev Vygotsky, a 20th century cultural psychologist, called it “the zone of proximal development.” He held that cognitive development was dependent on and driven by social interaction.

Vygotsky’s Mind in Society (1978) states:

“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people ….and then inside the child…. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.” (p. 57).

Learning depends on the strength of the relationships between teachers and students. This occurs every day, in every school, in any neighborhood in America where there are teachers who can forge connections with students. It often happens despite – not because of – administration, funding, policies, regulations, curriculum and tests.  Supplying sufficient numbers of teachers who can forge these relationships and supporting their work ought to be the goal of public policy.

In the movie E.T., Elliot might have had a better chance of explaining school to his extra-terrestrial friend if he knew just a couple of small words in Hawaiian that represent big concepts – A’o and Mana’o. Hawaiian is an economical language.  It uses only 13 letters, and sometimes one word can have several meanings.

The word  A’o (ah-oh) means both teacher and learner. Same word, two roles, one concept.  Imagine all the volumes written about how to achieve professional learning communities in our schools reduced to discourse about this one small Hawaiian word—A’o:  Learner as teacher and teacher as learner.

Mana’o’i’o (mah-nah-oh -ee-oh) means a deep personal faith or conviction that is an integral part of a person’s identity and being. Add the two together – A’o and Mana’o’i’o – and we have a powerful gift of self that can change children, bring peace to a family, and transform lives.

The debate may continue about what information needs to be in the materials that our children study in school as they prepare for an uncertain and ambiguous future, but there is no debate about the importance and power of the teacher-student relationship to achievement.

So, as we approach the end of 2009 and the first decade of a century for which we hope to prepare our students, I look back with pride on a history of schooling that is unrivaled anywhere else in the world. I offer the example of small schools with big ideas, and big ideas contained in small words.

We are a’o.  We can share mana’o with one another, and we can strive to be knowledgeable and virtuous teachers and citizens. We can do it for our kids, and we can do it for ourselves, our communities and our nation.

All the best in 2010!



About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Explaining Small Schools with Big Ideas… Using Big Ideas Carried in Small Words

  1. An inspiring and thought-provoking piece on the history of American education and school’s like Lawrence. Basically, an instructor ends and a teacher begins when content is coupled with other-awareness. The best teachers never lose touch of the personal, relational space that each student occupies in the classroom!

  2. Lou Salza says:

    Thank you Linda! Is there a worthy enterprise does not ultimately boil down to relationships and enthusiasm? I take this opportunity to thank you for all you do through the strength of your relationships and enthusiasm to strengthen the relationships between and among our schools and school leaders!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s