Published: May 24, 2021

Here is how I became aware of this vast resource of creativity and innovation waiting to happen.

In the public schools of Banning, California, I had many fine teachers who sent me out into the world with the skills I would need to rise to every challenge and to seize every opportunity. So I have long been perfectly aware of the difference that teachers can make in the lives of individual young people.

But until I spoke at a conference for social studies teachers at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming, thirty or more years ago, I had only a faint idea of the impact that taking the restraints off the liveliest teachers could have on the whole educational system.

The organizers of this conference had done their work well, and all the speakers proved to be worth hearing. I had planned to skip the banquet speaker, but the unbroken streak of great talks during the day made me change my mind.

So I went to the banquet, where my luck ran out.

After dinner, a couple of hundred K-12 teachers and I settled in for what proved to be an extraordinarily dull speech. Paradoxically, the speaker’s topic was “orality,” a word which was unfamiliar to most of us on the receiving end of this talk. But we were quick learners, and we soon figured that “orality” was the spoken counterpart to literacy.

So we had reasons to expect that we would hear a speaker who would deepen our appreciation of the power of the spoken word.

Didn’t happen.

This was a jargon-saturated talk, delivered in the style of orality that is usually called “droning.” (Remember, this event took place long ago, so “droning” meant that the banquet room was filled with monotonous sound waves, not with erratic flying devices.)

The speaker meandered and wandered along; and, for more than half an hour, we all complied rigorously with the training in politeness and respect that our mothers and fathers had given us.

And then, as the length of the speech seemed to approach eternity, we all reached the recognition that the social contract between speaker and audience had been broken, and we were free to be fully ourselves.   

Ordinarily, when speakers stand before audiences, everyone in the room has consented to an agreement: the speaker will give a speech worth hearing, and the audience will be respectful and attentive.

When the speaker does not live up to her side of the contract, the contract dissolves, and the audience is unleashed.

So the teachers went all-in for a creative and spirited rebellion.

At first, they passed notes to each other, and chuckled quietly when they read those notes. Then they escalated and whispered to each other, with subdued giggling as the result. They stacked plates, cups, and silverware as if they were building rock cairns in the outdoors. They folded their napkins into funny shapes, and a menagerie of animals (accompanied by certain indelicate representations of human anatomy) soon enlivened the tables.

Once the social contract between speaker and audience was irreparably broken, the evening became extremely enjoyable, as the very people who maintained order in classrooms demonstrated how much they had learned from their charges. In the years since, I have attended innumerable conference banquets, but this one still holds first place as the most instructive.

Here’s what I learned.

If we could set teachers free of some of the constraints and strictures of professional tedium, all sorts of creative approaches to individual expression and to group activity would suddenly be in play.

Here’s where we could start.

The pause in in-person education has undermined the foundation that once kept standardized testing in place. So the time is right to reduce the burden on teachers to prepare children for those “one-size-does-not-fit-all” tests.

If we give this a try, it seems entirely possible that the dynamism, pep, humor, and joy of that banquet room in Cody will transform classrooms across the nation, maybe especially—given the talent pool I got to observe for myself—in the great state of Wyoming.

Teachers know the established educational system from the inside, and they are thereby particularly well-equipped to know where it needs to be refreshed.

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