National Endowment for the Humanities Reinvigorated My Teaching Career, and We Should Want More of That

Jonathon Medeiros, NBCTJanuary 22, 2018

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“The world belongs to those who can imagine it.” – Luis Valdez

Teachers hear many voices over the course of a career. We hear our own voices driving us. We hear students’ voices. We hear the voices of the public, sometimes calling us names, and the voices of our colleagues and administrators calling us in many directions at once. We also hear voices echoing from offices at the District or State or farther afield.

Luis Valdez, activist, playwright, and director of Teatro Campesino, was a guest lecturer and inspiring voice at a summer course I attended recently. We studied the literature of immigrants and how their oft overlooked voices add to an American identity. The course, hosted by San Jose State University, was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), whose funding is currently in question. Meanwhile, state Departments of Education (DOEs) spend obscene sums on consultants with a dearth of imagination or on canned PD that, in my experience, do little to inspire teachers and have no lasting impact except on a DOE’s budget.

Dissonance between these conflicting voices, some exhorting us to pursue our curiosity and learn what we need and others reminding us to stay in line and jump through hoops, need to be resolved.

My summer included things never found in the pre-approved DOE professional development offerings. River timelines. Eagle arms. Jaguar legs. Alphabet relays. Tableaux. Adaptations. Performances. Camaraderie. Voices asking us to imagine how we might rethink learning for our students and ourselves.

I spent hours reading, listening, discussing, learning, writing, performing, and feeling vulnerable in a room of 25 of the best educators in the country, not to mention the NEH seminar instructors. Zatz. Spangler. Gendzel. Ka. Chong. Lam. Kingston. Hosseini. Valdez. Valdez. An appeal to ethos: these are not just names. These are powerful voices, leaders in their fields, Ph.Ds, performers, poets, writers/directors of Broadway and West End shows, historians, Open PEN award winners, National Book Award winners, feminist icons, Presidential Medal of Honor winners, NYTimes Best Sellers, masters of their crafts, taking time to foster our curiosity and underscore our responsibility to give credence to imagination.

How could we not change after being treated like the curious intellectual equals to these amazing practitioners?

I feel braver, more confident, more prepared to be creative and follow unconventional ideas. Perhaps this will be the year I finally get up the courage to have my AP Lang students memorize a Traveling Wilburys song to perform before we write every day. In class, we turn into a river. We talk about who we are and where we are going. Students build frozen pictures, tableaux, with their bodies communicating analysis of texts through performance and discussion. We grow into a family of learners while taking risks. Curiosity rewards us as the students stop to talk about one word of text, one letter, one comma. Learning doesn’t end now as I tell the students “I’m sorry, we have to stop. The bell rang.” Students groan as they pack up, their discussions echoing out the door, down the halls, like water babbling down the river, as they continue to explore our now shared imagined world.

I’m excited to teach and learn everyday, to be creative and share this world with my students. My colleagues, too, are changed as my excitement piques their curiosity. This is probably what my admin and my state should want out of PD. And this excitement to imagine and learn is what makes a great teacher.

Juxtapose this with the canned PD that personnel offices expect us to purchase. This is the SPAM of professional learning, weirdly alien yet the same, year in and year out, plus or minus a few ounces of gelatinous goo. ‘Listen to a consultant!’ ‘Follow an online program!’ ‘Buy this expensive book, and don’t forget to submit a portfolio!’

This is not food for curiosity.

Do we learn or grow or become better teachers because of these courses? Do our students benefit because a consultant told us to sing, or care, or stand on a table? We need to reflect on our answers to these questions. PD courses that don’t change teaching and learning, that don’t positively impact us all as teachers and students, are obsolete, yet we are encouraged to pursue this model of PD, mere sustenance to keep teachers moving on the treadmill that they call a career ladder. These courses may change one lesson but they rarely inspire us to truly change, to be creative, to listen to the voices that encourage us to imagine different landscapes where students are the center.

I think about my time in San Jose. I hear Luis Valdez tell us that the world belongs to those who can imagine it. I’m trying to follow his advice.

I flex my eagle arms, my jaguar legs. I see a classroom where teachers and students can follow their curiosities to teach, learn, and lead; a world where they can help guide and change schools instead of being guided by the voices of people who sit in offices, where the imagined world is forbidden.

Please note: This article originally appeared on Medium and was posted by Hope Street Group

Jonathon Medeiros, NBCT

Jonathon Medeiros, NBCT

Jonathon Medeiros is a National Board Certified high school English Language Arts teacher in Kapaa, Hawaii and a 2014–2016 HI State Teacher Fellow. He is a member of Hope Street Group’s national Teacher Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter at @JonMedeiros.