"Let Us Plant Dates:" Our Role & Our Moment in Schools

christhinnesUncategorized6 Comments

[Process Post after #NAISAC13]


Chris Thinnes


Reflecting on my role in helping to facilitate a three hour workshop on public-private partnerships, in which it couldn’t have been clearer how much work remains for public and private school stakeholders to examine and to revise our assumptions about each other; following a day of workshops in which conference attendees were exhorted to understand that supporting deeper learning is not just an opportunity, but an imperative, for us all; and compelled for a variety of reasons to examine the conflicts between my professional responsibilities and my personal points of view; it was cathartic to sit outside the #NAISAC13 conference hotel around midnight last Thursday with my close colleague and friend, at a safe enough remove from others’ eyes and ears to dig down deeply about the big picture for both of us: our understanding of what we can bring to this world, and how best to honor our deepest convictions in this moment of history.

S/he and I both can see a better world in our imaginations, as so many of us can — specifically, schools that honor student self-direction, that support deeper learning, that foster genuine creativity and critical thought; that embrace the experiences of all stakeholders; that foster the development of character and community with the same intentionality and value as traditionally ‘academic’ goals; and so on — but we don’t as often see it in our daily lives and travels. We see great, and outlying, examples, but we do not see belief systems or school systems transformed. We spend a great deal of our time, in our respective schools, serving the twin masters of ‘history’ and ‘balance’ — directed to pay tribute to the assumptions borne of our schools’ long and ‘traditional’ histories by cautiously and incrementally advancing innovation and inclusion initiatives at a pace that won’t threaten other people’s ‘comfort.’ We mean what we say — and our colleagues and leaders, importantly, also mean what they say — when we talk about the value of transformational teaching practices in our classrooms, and the urgency of improving cultural competence, equity, and inclusion in our schools. But we find the opportunity, understanding, and support to do what we ‘mean’ far less often than we get to talk about it.

In our more difficult moments, this begs for us the question of what it means for us to ‘mean’ what we say. S/he and I are highly proficient facilitators in our school communities, in our intentional efforts and opportunities to establish a school-wide ‘balance’ between old and new; between the comfortable and the threatened; between outdated assumptions and changing realities in the world. But we serve that ‘balance’ mindful of an occasional, and important, hypocrisy that underlies our efforts. As Alfie Kohn recently quoted Dan Okrent, “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something’s true.” In this case, what we know and feel about what learning should look like, and how learning communities should be held together, feel less and less to be appropriate currencies for compromise.

So there we were, having our umpteenth private and personal conversation about what school could be like, and what role we could plan in it (“We could start a ______;” “We could try a ______;” “We should talk to _____”), painting together on a Philadelphia streetcorner a picture of the world we want to live in, and the schools we want to help create. At some level it was deeply moving; at some level, too, it was of no more consequence to education than Fantasy Football is to the sport. And we spent some time exploring our relationship between ‘that’ world, and ‘this’ one.

At some point it hit me, though, that our frustration might be borne less out of the cautiousness, conservativism, or confusion of our peers, our schools, or our stakeholders in particular, than of the ambiguity and uncertainty of our historical moment in general. Maybe this will be remembered as the era in education when everything was changing, and not the era in which it that change was fully defined or realized. Despite astonishing and inspiring examples from students, teachers, and leaders in so many schools and districts throughout our country, they still comprise, if we are honest with ourselves, a relatively narrow subset of voices in a collective conversation about education and our children’s futures. The more common experience is ours — of trying to model, inspire, lead, support, and promote change, but perhaps not so often enjoying the experience of its fulfillment as we might like.

It occurred to me, and I shared it with my friend and colleague, that perhaps our ‘lot’ in life is not to see our clearest visions concretely realized, but to make that experience plausible for another generation of students, educators, and families that will follow us. And I suggested (given, if nothing else, our interest and determination to pursue this conversation in the middle of the night on a streetcorner in Philadelphia) that s/he and I might be particularly well-suited to enduring the ambiguity, sustaining the discomfort, and exploring the conflicts of systemic change in our schools. In other words, it might be our ‘calling’ to make our dreams possible for other people.

I’m a big fan of drawing upon Greek mythology, and early Modern literature, for role models. While Sisyphus, Tantalus, Hamlet, and Don Quixote didn’t quite get exactly what they wanted, surely they demonstrated a quiet dignity, persistence, and resilience in their efforts that, we can agree, is both commendable and worthy of our emulation in trying times.

The next day, I had the opportunity to see CTA colleagues (and heroes) Sherry Coleman and Jackie Hamilton receive this year’s NAIS Diversity Leadership Award, for their decades-long efforts “to advance diversity and inclusivity on a national and international scale.”  At the end of Jackie’s acceptance speech, she cited a poem by Rubem Alves (Brazilian theologian, philosopher, educator, writer, and psychoanalyst):

Let us plant dates
Even though we who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
That is the secret discipline.

I immediately thought of my conversation with my colleague late the night before, and took great faith and comfort not only from Alves’ words, but from Jackie’s (and Sherry’s) deep-seated investment, and tireless demonstrations, of that example.

Shortly after Jackie’s citation, I found a longer copy of the poem on Ivon Prefontaine‘s “Teacher as Tranformer” blog. I also found a copy of Alves’ Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture — in which I’m currently immersed, and at the end of which Alves frames his conclusions about these dynamics in prose:

This is not the moment of birth. It is not the moment of political confrontation. But if we are sowing something really new, it is inevitable that the community of faith and the existing order are on a collision course. . .

Let us plant dates, even though those who plant them will never eat them.

If our child was aborted, let us lay eggs which will be hatched long after we are dead.

We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret of discipline. It is a refusal to let the creative act be dissolved away in immediate sense experience, and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They made their bodies the seed of their highest hope, because they knew that “a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls to the ground and dies” (John 12:24).


#     #     #


You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • The reflection of planting dates took my right back to the punch line of my book, The Falconer. It occurs in the chapter on redemption. I will post a longer quote on my blog when I refer to this excellent piece you have written, but here it is in short:

    If you deny the essence of your nature, you are not your full self.

    To truly consider yourself a warrior, you must set your personal bar very high. If the challenges are not great enough, you either must raise the bar or cease to
    consider yourself a true warrior.

    At some point, you are going to fail in your fundamental goals, your belief system, your moral foundation, your self-view. It is an inevitable result of setting the bar higher and higher.

    Redemption comes from trying, despite the sure knowledge that you will fail.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Thanks, Grant, for your affirmation and example.

  • Love this post.

  • Chris, what a beautiful and stirring post. Yes, we should plant dates. But we also have to eat and feed others today. How might we do both? Manage the metaphorical dietary portfolio with nourishment that will provide health now and health in the future? With the wisdom to do both without jeopardizing either?

    I so appreciate your example of doing both/and. I just wish I could see more of your example from all the way across the continent.

    • ChrisThinnes

      Yeah, I suppose we gotta eat too 😉 And TG for so many great examples of good models peppered here and there, and great examples of passionate teaching, leadership and learning [yours, notably] to emulate. Thanks so much for your continued support and encouragement, Bo . . .

  • Pingback: Alves, Dewey, & Rinaldi on Our “Season of Design” | chris.thinnes.me()