Always School

It’s the middle of September. I’m back into the routine of school. Always school.

The last few weeks have been a blur. I teach in Altoona early on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I’m up at about five to get my run in and be on campus in time for class. I’m out at the bus stop by 7:20 to stand with my son Solomon on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. School, as it always seems to do in September, dictates my morning routine.

This iteration of school in September has been particularly busy. Solomon is off to kindergarten. My wife Katie took a trip to Minnesota for a wedding. I gave a guest lecture in a Critical Media class at Penn State about affirmational critique. I facilitated a faculty improv workshop with the other founders of Happy Valley Improv. Performed in a couple of improv shows. We even went to Pittsburgh to perform in an improv festival. I got another literacy education class at Penn State Altoona off the ground. I’m co-editing a journal, planning my fall conference travel, and participating in all sorts of academic research projects. Writing projects. These past few weeks have marked quite a transition from a lazy August. September, for me, has always signaled an adjustment. This year does feel different, though.

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I’m growing more confident in my work as a scholar. Finding and facilitating intersections between improvisation and pedagogy continues to prove satisfying. Both in my practice as a performer or a teacher as well as in my writing. The research projects I’m working on seem significant. Recent work with colleagues has allowed me to see how so many of the philanthropic, for-profit forces in education are strategically anti-improvisational and anti-democratic. I’m beginning to understand how much of my frustration as a classroom teacher was born out of systematic attempts to script, dehumanize, and commoditize what happens in schools across the country and, frankly, the globe. Certainly, these instrumentalized trends in education worry me as an educator. But they worry me as a parent too. So much of what Solomon and Samson become will be dictated by schools. As a professor, I’m in a position to think more deeply about schooling and speak into discourses of teaching and learning on behalf of vitality through my creative and academic work. I’m thankful for that.

Teaching high school was a blast. And it was meaningful. But it was also a grind that offered little opportunity to reflect on or critique what the institution of school was asking of me. What it was compelling me to do in my classrooms. And certainly, as a student, I had little to no input on what was happening around me. If teachers and students don’t have mandate in schools, who does? Seeking out the answer to that question in recent work has left me more skeptical than ever. There are people and forces that benefit from imposing particular initiatives in school. And by benefit I mean profit. Teacher assessment, high-stakes testing, diversity programs – so many of these programs that define what counts as legitimate in school – are born out of selfish desires to turn a profit or affirm the status quo. For over a hundred years, scholars have been adamant that public school in a democracy needs to be protected from the vested interest of the powerful or elite. I worry that schools in this country and around the world haven’t come close to living up to that mission.

The ability to engage in a democratic exchange for the good of the group seems like a skill most people in the United States lack. And school doesn’t seem to help much. The obsession in schools with producing students who are college-ready or prepared to enter the job-place neglects what to me is a primary mission of schools in a democratic society – promoting the ability for an empowered group of people to meaningfully participate in their communities. Certainly, the powerful and privileged would resit this view of school. A citizenry able to connect with each other and dictate policy for the betterment of the group is bad for business. It is not good for the group for a small percent – infinitesimal, really – to hold all the wealth in a society, all the power. It’s bad for people. So the wealthy usually support initiatives, sometimes with the most genuine of intentions, that script, dehumanize, and commoditize school. Render the population harmless. This is happening globally. The rich and powerful are an increasingly small group.

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So I’m a few weeks into more school. I’m about seventeen years into my career as an educator. And I have about twenty years as a student under my belt. That’s lots of school. But I keep at it. And it certainly isn’t for the paycheck. You should see my bank account. It’s not pretty. But the work I’m doing continues to feed me. It feels important, and I’m growing more courageous that the things I have to say have some value. I’m grateful to have the opportunity do such work. Albeit tired.

One thing about being in school remains very much the same. I love a lazy Sunday, sitting on my couch, watching the Minnesota Vikings in my underwear. Soak in that image, if you like. It’s a habit that was born in my childhood and remains with me now. Heavenly.

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