“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 split into groups 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.
how do you think they got up there, dude?
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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- GREAT MATERIAL. He had to be confronted with something worth learning, something bigger than himself. Something with undeniable value and meaning in of itself.
- CREATIVE TEACHERS. He needed teachers who could create and facilitate zone moments.
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?
All photos are mine, collected on a student tour in Spain, 2012.