Sunday, February 26, 2012

Taking Kids to Spain

Students need to be in the zone

Spilling in reds, oranges, and blues, the Spanish sun splashes graffiti on the medieval flagstones. They stand there, the children, in their Nikes and Adidas, Uggs and slip-ons. Looking up, their eyes try to adjust to the unforgiving contrasts of light and dark.

“These vaults, the crotch vaulting- look at it, amazing- are the work of unknown craftsman from the 14 and 1500's...” The voice of our guide, Salome, echoes into nothingness, quickly replaced by the muffled chatter of the students. “You are standing in a place that represented the place between heaven and earth for the people of this town. Hundreds of years ago, if you'd been a peasant, you would have been in awe.”

The high school kids appear divided on this, in classic adolescent fashion. Some are bored and tired, barely aware of where they are. Others are fighting the ennui, trying to make sense of any of it. And then others: transfixed, mouth agape, eyes filled with wonder.

I make eye contact with one of them, a boy named Nick. It's been a long trip from NY to Spain and we've been here for days. I raise my eyebrows with a “what do you think?” expression. He looks at me and says, “Wow, Mr. Kleba, I had no idea. It's incredible. How did they do all this?”

The right response to him is, of course, "How do YOU think they got those stones up there, dude?" The ensuing conversation would be lovely and productive.  But I pause.

I look back up to the towering heights of the stone arches, questions of my own echoing in my head. Nick's reaction is the holy grail in education, the sublime moment. Normally at school, he's distracted and out of it, watching the clock. I've had him in class. But right now, he is wide open, ready to learn, thrilled by the idea of understanding more. He's prime meat.  In the cool dark of this cathedral, he is so bloody teachable. At this moment, he could learn just about anything.

And I ask myself: how did he get to this moment of wonder? What series of events led to this kid's specific experience? Why is he in the zone while others are not?

The Zone
Getting a person to the place where she is willing to learn is the single most important job of a teacher. Sure, we've got to keep the buggers in their seats, patrol them for petty crimes, and drag them through mazes of mandated tests, forms, and procedures. But, mostly, it's about getting them into the zone.

The best teacher you ever had-- think about him or her for a moment-- was a master at getting you in the zone. You never liked math until you had Ms. Murphy. Social studies made no sense until Mr. Psota breathed life into it. Chemistry was an inscrutable cloud until Mr. Ferris helped you pilot it.

In the zone, you found yourself more interested in learning. You let your wonder free. You forgot about the burdens of everything and became engaged in the matter at hand. You suddenly cared about how or why something worked.

Nick got in the zone because a bunch of teachers, working outside of the typical parameters, did a lot of stuff to help get him there.
  1. TRAVEL. He had to leave the world of comfort and stability back home. Getting out of the unfamiliar was required. Strange language, strange food, strange bed-- all of it had an impact.
  2. INVESTMENT. He needed to be invested in the trouble of it all-- paying a lot money to travel helped with that, but so did the work of packing and traveling he put in.  
  3. GREAT MATERIAL. He had to be confronted with something worth learning, something bigger than himself. Something with undeniable value and meaning in of itself.
  4. CREATIVE TEACHERS.  He needed teachers who could create and facilitate zone moments.
We only went to Spain so that Nick, and others like him, could get into the zone. The best thing we did was carefully pluck the kid out of the routine of his life and give him a way to appreciate something.

Factories Cannot Produce Experience
We are having the wrong conversations about education.  We want a more perfect education system-- and it's crazy.  We are spending too much money and time keeping kids in systems. Our education culture is stilted in its repetitive, construct-based model. We don't need better curricula-- we need better teachers. Frankly, we don't even need better testing-- we need better opportunities for the kids.  

We can't address what's not working in education by taking all the kids on field trips- that's not the point.  But creating conditions for kids to experience beautiful, inspiring, and challenging moments should be our prime focus.  And, culturally, politically, and economically, we aren't even talking about how to do it.  

Can we afford to take kids to Spain?  No, definitely not in this economy.  But can we afford not to?


  1. Kleebs, thanks for this. I was wondering when you were going to sign back on. It's a great reminder as a teacher and a parent. That the moment is glorious- I wonder how many times I've missed it. I'll miss it again, I'm sure. But, I'm intent on catching it as many times as possible and bathing in the wonder of it all. I love you man!

  2. Teaching a teenager who is inside a learning moment is a capture. It' takes renting the boat, choosing the correct gear, threading the appropriate bait, and being perfectly poised at the optimum time to land the slippery wildlife. And it requires trust and precision.