Coast Chronicles: 
The Head and Heart of Education

Ocean Beach School Superintendent Jenny Risner startedher professional career as an elementary-level teacher. Her decisions are still informed by those experiences, while she also acknowledges that children today have far more rapid access to information in the Internet age than in the past.

Our school district has the challenges endemic to any rural area: the distance our district covers, especially when ours is nestled around Willapa Bay; the poverty characteristic of many resourced-based economies; and the general crunch of shrinking dollars for public programs.

None of these challenges has taken Ocean Beach School District superintendent Jenny Risner by surprise. Nor is she daunted by them, In fact, she’s optimistic about the improvements taking place in our Peninsula schools.

“We’re facing many challenges, but I’m going to start with a positives: our facilities and the support we have in the community, both are really unique. We have amazing facilities for a district of this size, and we have a community that has passed bonds and levies for education when nobody else is.”

“This community definitely values the importance of public school education. That puts us in the position that we can really make some growth now. I do see the challenges — sure — our curriculum is very traditional in its focus. And we need to build more opportunities for our students, especially at the secondary level, in CTE [career and technical education] with vocational classes like woodshop or Ilwaco industries. But it’s really a matter of taking those programs and expanding them so kids can find what they love and be passionate about it. I’d like us to provide more hands-on work opportunities in real world settings.

“That takes a while to build, but we’re exploring enhanced funding to funnel money into CTE programs. And we’ll be teaching in a different way. I think we’ve been too isolated when it comes to staff development. Our teachers have felt like they have to be in this traditional mode of instruction, but they need to feel OK about taking risks with different approaches, they need to know they’ll have the support. It’s going to take some courage both for administrators and teachers to step out of that mode.”

Risner wastes no time striking at the core of the national debate going on in the aftermath of William Deresiewicz’s concept “excellent sheep.” He argues that students are required to march lock-step into college while their initiative and individuality is driven out of them in favor of forced achievement of goals not their own.

Some argue that this begins long before college; and it could be argued that teachers are in the same forced march. There’s nothing like “teaching to the exam” that takes the spark out of a classroom. When a student raises his or her hands and the question is “Will this be on the test?” you can safely say curiosity for learning’s sake has flown out the window.

How can a student, still an unformed individual, understand what he does well, or what she gets excited about? Discovering one’s special talent necessitates that students be exposed to a wide range of activities; and, along with that variety, that students have teachers perceptive and creative enough themselves to be guides — to tell Johnnie that he seems transported when he’s playing his trombone; or that Suzy can’t stop looking in that microscope.

Darwin’s father sent him off to become a surgeon at the University of University of Edinburgh Medical School (he couldn’t stand the screaming of patients — anesthesiology hadn’t been discovered yet); and then to Christ College to become a parson, but Darwin’s favorite activity was collecting beetles. Dad thought that two-year voyage of the Beagle would be a colossal waste of time. Thank goodness Darwin knew what interested him — “On the Origin of Species,” the thinking that developed out of his Galapagos Islands studies, is one of the major milestones of science, right up there with E=MC2

So offering students a range of activities — exposing them to arts, culture, science, languages and each other — is critical to the development of self. But, at the same time, they need to be able to support themselves and their families. Are the common core goals sufficient to cover both allowing students to retain their creativity and learn real world skills?

Risner again, “There are so many of these mandates and it seems like more and more every year, learning and testing mandates. In many ways it feels like the teachers are straight-jacketed. They’ve been in a position where they don’t have a choice — that’s how it’s felt. We’ll need courageous leaders who understand that we do have a choice, that we can teach the same standards through different means.”

“I think the key is engagement — it’s all about engagement with the students. You could teach anything but it’s how we engage with students that might look different.”

Sandy Stonebreaker, a professional educator and dedicated Ocean Beach School Board member, says, “My heart and my head very rarely agree on the purpose of education, whether it be in our school district or anyplace else.”

“My head says that we must pursue data-driven instruction. My heart says the teachers know better how to teach kids. My head says we absolutely must increase test scores. My heart says there is no research available to ‘prove’ that higher test scores lead to success once you are out of school.”

I’m thrilled to report that Risner started her career as an elementary school teacher. (I’ve said before that teachers in these first grades should be the best paid in the nation.) She’s seen herself that dulling out of spark in the eyes of kids in school. “Kids come to us so excited in first grade, but something happens and that shifts by third grade. It starts tapering off.” How can we give students the skills they need and still allow them to retain that flame of individuality and natural genius that every child possesses?

Risner is not shy about naming the challenges. “We have totally different students now than we had 10 years ago. They have access to instant information on anything they want. Technology has changed the way adults think and, look at our students, they’ve had it since they were old enough to sit up. It’s amazing to watch a 1-year-old scan through pictures on a cell phone. Our teaching hasn’t caught up to that.”

People at the upper echelons — at state and federal levels — making decisions about curriculum grew up in a different era and perhaps don’t fully comprehend the new world our students will be entering. When asked what else our community can do to support the changes that our Peninsula schools will need to prepare students for this world, Risner says, “It’s going to take a team approach to be OK with changes and with things looking different for awhile. Change is uncomfortable and we have to change the way we’re educating our kids. So I just ask that we all be patient while we make these changes.”

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