Canoeing Illustrates a Need for Harmony

CEO, One-to-One Institute

Canoes were the Native Americans’ primary means of traveling along coasts, across and down bodies of water. This transport mode increased their ability to trade, face war, and provide means for finding solutions to inter-tribal concerns.  Today, canoeing conjures the picture of serenity, listening to a flowing river, the wind, birds, and maybe one’s breathing. However, if you are canoeing upstream or carrying too much cargo, you can use all the energy, strength and skills you can muster and still find yourself capsized or awash onshore.  The latter aspect of this metaphor echoes the stirrings of teachers and administrators in today’s education landscape.

Staying Afloat

Canoes float the way of all boats - by displacing water. The vessel floats because it moves more water weight than it weighs; the canoe will sink if it is loaded with too much bulk. As weighty objects are heaped into the canoe, it will continue to drop lower in the water.  When too much weight is added, water will pour in over the sides and sink the canoe.  The early travelers knew this and planned accordingly.  Native Americans from the Plains invented other crafts, like the bull boat, for hauling cargo.

Many educators today  believe they are overloaded and sinking into a wet, dark abyss.  Staying afloat is a major challenge. This is second only to charting a sensible course for circumnavigation. Districts have added the bulk of mandated tests, technologies, timelines, standards and accountabilities to all else they tend to.  At the same time, they must focus on the core work-ensuring that each learner is achieving, succeeding academically, socially and emotionally while honoring their unique fragilities and strengths.  Simply navigating the new acronyms, rubrics, timelines, etc., is enough to capsize the boat – requiring immediate lifesaving strategies. Thoughtfully determining ‘how’ to remain afloat while spiraling new, revised expectations into current practice seems impossible.

Talking about Balance

Keeping a canoe balanced is essential for productive and safe transport. It’s about balancing weight in the canoe.  One knows when the balance point is achieved: the canoe will smoothly respond to the row, going in the desired direction, responding to and avoiding obstacles to stay afloat, on course, AND reaching the destination.  The center of gravity keeps the craft balanced. It is a natural, physical response.

Educators are working tirelessly to be centered – focused on the commitment to learners and community in the wake of the myriad of unnatural distractions. This focus provides grounding, a center of gravity.  It guides teachers’ and administrators’ practice and decisions.  This is possible even when the habitat is awash with obstacles and waters that appear impossible to navigate.

Leading Forward Motion

It’s difficult today to manage - let alone ‘lead’ - the forward course.  The weight from packing unrealistic expectations, timelines, and demands (with failure consequences) is overwhelming BUT not insurmountable.  The learning communities within each school can band together and invent their ‘bull boat’ to help assimilate the ‘load’- always mindful of the right work. True, the burden seems to have never been greater to right the river-map of our education system. 

We can recite the multitude of reform efforts that have come down the pike. Some of us got on board with  new ideas and practices. It’s been a long and circuitous, but productive, trip.  We’ve  learned a lot and continue to keep our sense of mission.  It is this energy that can steer us to solutions for integrating present day mandates within the context of the right work.  The relentless criticisms, finger pointing and fear mongering that permeate today’s education mandates and choice rhetoric are zapping energies and passions that pushed us to choose ‘learning’ as our life’s work.  It doesn’t have to!

“Sustainable change, after all, depends not upon compliance with external mandates or blind adherence to regulation, but rather upon the pursuit of the greater good.” 
― Douglas B. ReevesLeading Change in Your School: How to Conquer Myths, Build Commitment, and Get Results

Collaborating throughout the Journey

It’s the point at which you know you must stop and portage that canoe. Sometimes you just have to pick up the craft, carry it away to the next water passage. That’s hard work.  It requires teams’ sharing the burden and solving the problem.  Isn’t that what we are all doing now?  Carrying that boat, uphill and down, with those who are staying the course with us, until we find where to put in – perhaps the next strategy that is an amalgamation of what lies in front of us.  US education has come far.  There have been a variety of obstacles around or through which we had to traverse.  We did it. We never bailed on the journey or purpose. When the hurricane hurls its final blow, only the strong, grounded, high quality and secure foundations will be left standing.  The same will be true this time around in the education transformation realm.

I’m hopeful, though I realize those in our ecosystem are struggling mightily.  We can spend time calling out culprits – blaming big business, corporations, policy makers, federal and state governments, political parties, etc.   A lot of so-called ‘education talking heads’ are making millions doing their rant.  I don’t see how that will bring us any closer to figuring out how to right this canoe. I believe it will be the power, integrity, creativity and innovation on the part of our colleagues that will discover good navigation plans.  They will map this out in a way that makes sense and amplifies our enterprise integrity, beliefs and knowledge about learners, learning, and teaching.

“Rivers have what man most respects and longs for in his own life and thought--a capacity for renewal and replenishment, continual energy, creativity, cleansing.”           -- John M. Kauffmann

I’m going to stay true to my water-bound ‘team’ as we pilot, with veracity, through these demanding, spirit-challenging and action-provoking times.

“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” - Joseph Campbell

Leslie Wilson, founder and CEO of One-to-One Institute, has served education for 38+ years  in top level, key decision-making roles at state and local levels. Recognized as an international expert in education technology, Wilson is a frequent writer, presenter and interviewee. Among her many publications, she co-authored, “Project RED-The Technology Factor, Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost Effectiveness” which is the most broadly used research around successful implementation of 1:1 technologies in schools.  

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