If you have ever thought that the barbarians are at the door threatening the purity and essence of your beloved institution with their new-fangled, so-called reforms … then you will enjoy Franz Kafka’s parable of the leopards.
Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand and becomes part of the ceremony.*
So – those leopards breaking into the temple of school: Who are they? What are they saying and doing? And who are the worshipers and bystanders and why are they responding that way?
Leopards – fierce, prowling, irrational, rapacious intruders smash their way in and with no regard for the time-honored sacred rituals.
They drink the holy water without regard for custom and their presence makes demands: The Open Classroom! Science! Diversity! Advanced Placement! Technology! Social-emotional learning! Standardized tests! No homework! Social media! Mandarin!
The leopards become expected and are assimilated. Ideas and practices are adopted .The curriculum is changed and the shape of the school culture morphs and bulges and begins to wobble under the weight of all it has taken on board.
What once was new and shocking and revolutionary is now co-opted, incorporated, routine and humdrum.
The sacred ritual is upended by the sacrilegious intruders. And then, over time, they too – chained and tamed – become a part of the routine. The change agents are now part of TTWWHADI. Send for fresh leopards!
Kafka has captured the cyclical process of disruption and change. At any one time we are are marauding leopards or defensive worshipers at the altar of tradition or bystanders. It captures how the counter-cultural rebel musician becomes a millionaire Grammy winner; how Martin Luther King goes from Birmingham jail to the face of a US postage stamp.
That one sentence parable is a great starter for thinking about life in schools. The authors** of the NAIS book Taking Measure: Perspectives on Curriculum and Change did just that in their first chapter.
It was published in 1998 but it remains remarkably fresh and to the point. Taking Measure was a good book then. And it’s a good book now. I suspect that those schools that took its advice, admonition and insight to heart are well positioned to be thoughtful about the new leap of leopards in our midst.
The parable leads us to take a close look at the unexamined assumptions that undergird what we do in schools. Where are the paw prints of the leopards lurking in the shadows and deep in the fabric of the culture and curriculum?
Do we study Ancient Greece or medieval Japan (or any aspect of the curriculum) because we still think they have a significant place in the curriculum? Or is it because it is what we have done for decades?
And what about grades? And the active, experiential cast to the curriculum? The integrated themes? Senior internships? The design of the classrooms and the shape of the building? Pumpkin carving and all the rest. Are these the footpads of leopards past? Or the cornerstones and latest iteration of a deliberate, articulated and shared philosophy?
We need to seek out the invisible tracks of the leopards and be ruthless in identifying their impact on the culture of the school. And – if after rigorous examination those tracks hold merit – we can protect them from the next leap of leopards. And if they don’t- – then bring it on: the leaping leopards of progress, evolution, change and growth.
So Taking Measure is a book well worth dusting off the professional bookshelf. And the chapter that begins with the leopards outlines the why, how and what of curriculum renewal.
It’s not that the new is better. It’s not that the old has lost its value. Rather, we should be intentional about our choices, must examine the assumptions behind our practice and be willing to explore the implications of what we do and consider alternatives. Why do we do what we do? And what alternatives are there? Are there better ways? What can we stop doing? What must we begin to do? What must we never surrender?
Only by a process of reflection and debate can we determine whether our present practices deserve to remain sacred and untouchable rites.
In the last couple of years I have delved into the school archives, read the board minutes, listened to the stories and unearthed some of the historical record. There are some strong threads that connect the school of 2011 with the PDS of the 1930’s and 1940’s: Service learning, thematic learning, the integration of the arts and the emphasis on active learning in the life of the mind to name some of them.
The founding leopards were fierce and determined in their desire to create a school established on best principles and practice. But the returning leopards kept coming and their spots were not all quite the same.
And there have been leaps of leopards in the PDS temple for sure.
In the late 1950’s and early sixties they brought a Sputnik-induced return to traditional desks, skepticism about the value of block play and – for a brief period – the introduction of grades.
A decade later the leopards broke down the walls and removed the desks and created the “Big Room” of PDS lore and legend. The move to Boardman Road ended that era. But the leopard tracks remain.
And so it goes.
In this – the second decade of the 21st century – we need to get really good at that reflection and making those intentional choices. Our history is rich with value and so is the transforming world in which we dwell.
*Franz Kafka (1883-1924) ** Stephen C. Clem, Karin H. O’Neil and Z. Vance Wilson