July 24th to 28th marked the second Big Picture Learning conference, Big Bang, that our school has attended. As the Maples Met School opened its doors last year and now is expanding heading into September, this second conference was a brilliant time to connect with friends throughout the BPL network, to engage in deep conversations about student-centered learning, and to begin thinking about what educative experiences we want to create and foster for the upcoming year.
Big Bang is also a time for the faculty at the Maples Met School and the Seven Oaks Met School to get to know each other better and to learn from each other. The host city, St. Louis, was an outstanding venue to connect with themes related to reconciliation (it was hard to ignore the overwhelming celebration of Manifest Destiny), to poverty, and to the arts, innovation, and urban revitalization.
One of the incredible highlights of the conference was the keynote discussion facilitated by BPL Co-Executive director Carlos Moreno with actor/artist/activist Wendell Pierce. Most will know Pierce from his incredibly impactful role in what might be considered the best television programme ever created, HBO’s The Wire.
Pierce spoke at great length about his experience growing up in New Orleans and how this shaped the work that he does now. His message, bathed in historical thinking (be leery of those who ignore history), emphasized a need for social entrepreneurship, collective resistance, and a need for our schools to nurture the knowledge and historical thinking required to confront the very real forces determined to maintain an inequitable control of resources and the means of production. (Pierce did claim to be a capitalist and argued that “real” capitalism would create some sort of social justice through innovation. I wish there was time to have challenged this, as capitalism at its core is about the exploitation of resources, both human and natural.)
What was striking about Pierce’s positioning was one particular sentence: “There are those who do not have our best interests at heart.”
This sentence, which he used with intention throughout his conversation with Carlos, was perpetually scaffolded by linking cause and consequence of historical events and forces. (A brilliant example of the use of the Historical Thinking Skills.) The past 500 years of European oppression, imperialism, and genocide has created deep trauma and deep chasms in how we treat each other on this continent.
Pierce created a clear line of historical reasoning as he linked recent events in Ferguson and the ubiquitous murders at the hands of police in the United States to centuries of oppression. (Let’s not pretend that this profound marginalization has not and does not happen north of the 49th parallel. Canada just might be better at covering such marginalization up.)
From government, government agencies, corporate interests, and a constant desire to maintain the status quo, Pierce succinctly articulated the dark clouds which prevent many within our society from achieving self-actualization. (And I am absolutely checking my white, male, European privilege and understanding that I might be a cog in this oppression.)
If we bring things back to the local, what are the examples in Winnipeg and Manitoba where people most certainly do not have the interests of our learners at heart? Might it be with city zoning failures, the failed attempts to inquire into missing and murdered indigenous women, the elimination of funding to women’s shelters, the lack of desire to service railways to the north but to support further beautification of urban parks, or the elimination of lactation consultants and other essential health services?
These are attacks on our community’s best interest and the antidote is where Big Picture schools, or Met schools, are well positioned. With our focus on relationships, relevance, and rigour, our mission is to fundamentally expose our learners to how their lives have been interwoven in a complex trajectory and to question their purpose on this planet and this universe. That’s why we leave to learn, that’s why we connect them with powerful mentors in the community, and that’s why we base everything we do on critical ways of thinking and deconstructing powerful existential problems and questions.
As a faculty at the Maples Met School, many of our discussions leaving the conference in various airport lounges were based on empowering our learners — empowering them, as Pierce suggested, “to exercise their right to self-determination.” The challenge, as it always is, is to know as the adult when to shut up, step out of the way, and let the learner drive her inquiry and purpose.
This is the magic of BPL and student-centered learning — placing the interests and passions of the learner before anything else.