Debi Duke: Make No Little Plans

Peter Feinman may be the Daniel Burnham of New York History. Burnham, born 1912 in Henderson, NY, was an architect and urban planner. Among his many projects were the Flatiron Building in NYC and master plans for Chicago and Washington, DC. He once told his colleagues “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work.” Peter stirs the blood of those of us who want to encourage appreciation for and preservation of our state, regional, and local culture and history. He’s great at pointing out bureaucratic folly, confused thinking, and just plain laziness in every quarter, and he offers useful advice about promoting what I would call a place-based agenda.
I’ve often hesitated to engage Peter—in person or here on New York History—precisely because he doesn’t think small, and I feared my ideas would fail to stir souls. As someone who works with teachers and informal educators at museums, historic sites, parks, and so on, stirring souls means taking on those whose actions, if not words, are changing for the worse the way all of us think and talk about education. As individuals the folks I serve often feel there is little they can do to change decisions being made at the state and national level. These actions increasingly equate learning with test scores leaving shallower curriculum in their wake. Teachers and informal educators also often feel powerless to alter an amorphous atmosphere that seems bent on erasing every opportunity to draw on students’ interests, community happenings and resources, or their own creativity. Yes, they encourage their organizations to do the right thing when these issues are on the table, but many aren’t really interested in becoming policy experts or spending time lobbying. Yes, they apply for grants to make field trips possible, even when they’ve been cut from district budgets. If they have time they may get to know the staff at the local historical society, museum, or environmental group. But where, I wondered, is the BIG idea worthy of Burnham or Peter? I think I may have found it in one of my favorite blogs, “Bridging Differences,” published by Education Week. Taking turns, veteran educator and author Deborah Meier and NYU education historian Diane Ravitch take on the biggest issues in education sharing insights, differences, and more. In her June 7 post, Meier articulated perfectly a big idea many teachers and informal educators I know live by even if they don’t articulate it as bluntly as she does. Early in her career Meier was taken aback when “a lady arrived from ‘downtown’” and criticized her classroom. It seems Meier wasn’t following “the curriculum guide” and had instead interpreted its themes in ways she thought would engage her students including, as it happens, anchoring it in the place she was teaching.As Meier puzzled over how to respond to the lady from downtown, her colleagues “came out of hiding,” Meier wrote, and reassured “me that she’d never be back. They apologized for not having explained ahead of time what one does in such circumstances. Which is, essentially, to lie and apologize.“I spent many years following that advice—and truly no one ever ‘came back.’ And I passed on this advice to student-teachers….” Meier added.So, is the big idea “lie and apologize?” Maybe. But maybe it’s this: while we’re trying to change curriculum, standards, tests, and all the other constraints that make it hard to incorporate place-based learning, let’s do what we can to let teachers know that we want them to use their judgment and creativity even when it feels like no one else does.

Debi Duke is coordinator of Teaching the Hudson Valley, a program of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area & Greenway, the National Park Service’s Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, NYS DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program, and the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.

Formal and Informal Educators: Can We All Get Along?

One of the ideas behind Teaching the Hudson Valley (THV) is that there’s a disconnect between K-12 teachers (formal educators) and the informal educators at our region’s many historical societies, museums, parks, galleries, historic sites, and so on. Informal educators, as we sometimes call them, have all this knowledge and all these amazing treasures that too few students get to glimpse.

We’re not Pollyanna &#8211 we know only too well that there are real barriers to getting kids out of the classroom and into their communities. In future posts, I hope to discuss ways to bridge the gap between formal and informal educators, but first I want to share some ideas for collaborating that were generated when we asked teachers and site staff what they wished the other knew about their worlds.

Let’s start with what they said they thought they could accomplish by working together:

Make education more meaningful. When students handle, measure, or experience actual objects and phenomena, learning becomes experiential/hands-on/authentic/inquiry- based and rooted in real-world understandings.

Connect place and community with learning.

Expand students’ capacity to make cogent arguments, connections, and observations- to ask questions and experiment- to use the scientific method- to engage in analytic thinking- and to experience awe and wonder.

Expand students’ boundaries.

Expose students to a broader range of styles, voices, and points of view and make it easier to address different kinds of learners.

Support learning standards because experience builds skills and knowledge.

Introduce students to more types of expertise along with a wider range of facilities, resources, and equipment.

Open new career possibilities for students because they see people doing other kinds of work.

Introduce more complex concepts &#8211such as appreciation, preservation, stewardship, community, environmental and historical literacy, and scientific and political awareness – and help to make them concrete.

Help students recognize that learning happens everywhere.

Encourage love of learning by showing that it can be fun and engaging.

Change the way students think about and experience learning especially when teachers discover and learn too.

Provide vivid references and jumping off points.

Next, here’s what formal educators told informal educators would help:

Develop consistency so we know what to expect when we visit or you visit us.

Be flexible. Make sure your staff is willing and able to respond to teachers’ needs, e.g., age, discipline, special needs.

Help students ask meaningful questions by sharing what you and your staff ask &#8212- or even debate &#8212- about your place and collections.

Tie programming to curriculum in creative ways. Surprise us. Or, if you’re stumped, ask us for ideas.

Consider sharing more than exhibits.

  • Take kids outside. Talk about landscape, architecture, plants, animals &#8212- your physical place
  • Share the knowledge, expertise, and point-of-view of your staff and volunteers
  • Show artifacts or things that aren’t normally on display
  • Tell us how you work and make decisions
  • Show us any special equipment you use

Extend the experience by sharing technology, documents, oral histories, and other resources we can take with us or access from school

Visit us &#8211 bring or loan documents, objects, artifacts, equipment, etc.

Equally revealing, here’s what informal educators recommended to teachers:
Prepare students and create a context for the visit. Use our pre- and post-visit materials, including evaluations, to extend student learning.

Integrate site experiences across disciplines.

Aim to make experiential learning an ongoing feature of your classroom. We can help.

Treat site visits as major learning opportunities not treats or rewards.

Continue, repeat, and extend experiences. For instance, use technology or repeat site activities at school, e.g., test water from a stream on school grounds, bring site staff to school, do journaling in the school yard instead of at desks.

Together, formal and informal educators agreed that taking the following steps could make their work together more productive for each and for kids:

Share your context and passion and try to understand that of your collaborator.

Communicate before and after the visit.

  • Discuss context, curriculum connections, and standards.
  • Agree on expectations, e.g., pre- and post-visit activities, evaluations, and/or surveys.
  • Exchange e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
  • Strive for multiple visits (both directions) and ongoing contact.

Encourage students to communicate directly with sites and informal educators.

Respect each other and your missions.

Identify and strive to meet mutual goals.

Involve and inform others, e.g., students, parents, boards, and administrators. Help your stakeholders understand the importance of schools and sites working together.

Photo: Students at Peebles Island (Courtesy Regional Alliance for Preservation). 

Debi Duke is coordinator of Teaching the Hudson Valley, a program of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area & Greenway, the National Park Service’s Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, NYS DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program, and the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.

New Contributor:Debi Duke, Teaching the Hudson Valley

Please join us in welcoming our newest contributor, Debi Duke, coordinator of Teaching the Hudson Valley, a program of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area & Greenway, the National Park Service’s Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, NYS DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program, and the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.

Debi was previously executive director of the National Coalition of Education Activists, a parent- teacher alliance with an emphasis on equity in education. For the first half of her career, Debi worked in the labor movement advising and training union leaders and rank-and-file in organizing, communications, and health and safety. From time to time she works as a consultant to labor and not-for-profit groups.