I just returned from the annual Elementary School Heads Association (ESHA) conference in Washington, D.C. While it is always hard to take time away from school, this type of professional development allows for some big picture thinking and reflection that is not always possible in the day to day life of school. We were fortunate to have amazing speakers like Wade Davis, Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic, who has made his life’s work traveling all around the world and living with indigenous people. He made many interesting points, of which I will mention two. He said that about 50 years ago, there were 7,000 languages spoken in the world, but the best estimates are that today that number is about half, or 3500. He said many Americans, when informed of that, see it as a positive, because more common languages will make communication easier. He asked us to think about that same fact while making the assumption that English was one of the languages that would disappear. He told us to consider what the impact of that event would be on our culture and history if suddenly our primary method of communicating whom we are disappeared. It certainly changed my perspective. He went on to give several examples of cultures that we might describe as primitive and the amazing abilities they had developed over the centuries. It was a reminder that while western culture can be proud of many of its accomplishments, it is only one view of what should be valued. He helped us to learn about cultures that are very different from ours and have amazing talents and values. It reminded me of yet another reason we need to be sure our students learn about other cultures and points of view and come to appreciate what they have to offer. I believe we all benefit from that type of learning and understanding.
Another speaker at our conference was the Honorable Joseph Lekuton, a member of the Kenyan Parliament. He grew up in Kenya as a member of the Maasai tribe. He shared his amazing life journey with us as he moved from Kenya to St. Lawrence University to teaching at an independent school in Virginia to earning a Master’s degree in international education policy at Harvard and back to Kenya as a member of the parliament. He wrote about his story in Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna for National Geographic. He spoke of being an eight-year-old who would go to boarding school for three months and then have to find his family, which was no simple feat, as they were nomadic people who moved to wherever their cattle would find the best grazing and water. They could have moved thirty or more miles from where he had last been with them. Imagine your eight-year-old wandering the savanna, having to find their own food and water and avoiding wild animals and dangerous humans as they looked for you. He said it never took him more than two weeks!?!?! Contrast that with the twenty-first century “snow plow parent” I have read about who does all he or she can to smooth the way for their child so they do not have any discomfort. As is often the case, I believe the best path may be somewhere between those two extremes. One other fascinating question he posed, as he tries to build more life-transforming schools in Kenya, was about resources. As a ten-year teacher in a fine American elementary school and a member of the Kenyan government, watching the schools he is helping to build, he said he felt his schools were accomplishing a great deal without many of the resources that are available to our schools. He challenged us to be sure we are making the most of the advantages we often take for granted. I appreciated his point, for it made me grateful for what we have, rather than always thinking about how we can have even more resources.
I appreciate that many of you have been reading these blogs and hope they are even half as thought provoking as these speakers were for me. I hope more of you who read the blogs will take the time to comment on them as a way of starting more conversations. I look forward to your wisdom. As Joseph Lekuton wrote in the copy of his book he signed for me and Liza, “May your journeys through life be filled with the courage of a lion!”