Education activist dreams of schools that defy convention

By Mark Lieberman

Chaltain (2)

After spending most of his life as a student or a teacher in a classroom, Sam Chaltain decided he needed a change.

Chaltain spent five years teaching English literature and American history in New York public and private schools before he made a move. Particularly in public school, Chaltain frequently felt confined and overwhelmed by the limitations of the educational environment.

“They couldn’t even process my paychecks on time,” Chaltain said. “It was impossible to get copies. Little things that you don’t even think would be an issue became so central.”

Instead, Chaltain became an education activist with many disparate pursuits. He’s a writer, with an opinion piece about the educational role of the school bus published in the New York Times last week, and a filmmaker, with a documentary spotlighting a South Carolina town and its school system set to debut on PBS in March. He travels across the country and observes students at work, then returns to his home to ruminate on what it all means.

“The reality is they’re very change-resistant,” Chaltain said, referring to American schools in general. “We have very fixed notions of what school is that have been with us for over a century.”

Among those fixed notions? “Kids in desks, kids in grades, kids getting grades, AP, subjects, content knowledge as the ultimate goal, cursive,” Chaltain said.

It wasn’t always like this for Chaltain, who grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire. Like many of his classmates, largely uninterested in school except as an opportunity to socialize.

“I loved school but not because of anything I was learning in school,” Chaltain said. “I loved the social aspect of school. School was just something you did. You had classes, you tried to get good grades so you could try to get into a good college and that was it.”

In moving from middle school to high school and then college, Chaltain didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do next. He got his bachelor’s degree in Afro-American studies and history, followed by a master’s degree in American studies from the College of William & Mary and an M.B.A. in non-profit management and organizational theory from George Washington University.

A particularly passionate professor at Madison set Chaltain on the path to teaching.

“That was transformational for me,” Chaltain said. “The reason I became a teacher was really because I felt like the gift that that professor had given me was something I really wanted to pass on.”

Chaltain caught a lucky break around the time he decided to leave the teaching profession. The First Amendment Schools Program in Washington, D.C. was looking for a new national co-director, and the position was just right for what Chaltain hoped would be a new phase in his career.

“When you’re a classroom teacher, your head has to be down,” Chaltain said. “You’re going as quickly as you possibly can and just trying to stay two steps ahead. It wasn’t until I moved to D.C. and was working with schools around the country that I got to notice patterns.”

From there, Chaltain moved on to more leadership positions at education-focused nonprofits and grew increasingly interested in the contradictions he witnessed in schools across the country.

Along the way, Chaltain has developed philosophies on many commonly discussed aspects of the education system. Standardized tests are a problem, he admits, but not for the reason people might expect.

“To me, the question is not whether or not standardized testing is good, but what should we be standardizing in order to create a healthier and a more equitable system?” Chaltain said. “And to me, unquestionably, the way schools are funded is just low-hanging fruit.”

In particular, Chaltain takes issue with the idea that funding for schools should be in proportion with the wealth of the surrounding area.

“If you have the means to buy a more expensive house, you also have the means to purchase a more effective education in theory,” Chaltain said. “That’s not fair.”

Now faced with the challenging of releasing his two sons into the education systems he studies on a daily basis, Chaltain acknowledges that he has more sympathy for parents who have had to make difficult choices.

“It’s interesting for the first time being in the position of a parent,” Chaltain said. “I know too much.”

Chaltain’s son, 5, attends a language immersion school, which fosters a self-directed environment for students to learn English and Spanish. Chaltain is pleased with how his son has been treated so far and hopes that more schools might adopt this model going forward.

“It’s helping kids understand how to guide themselves through a day and how to get what they need. How to understand what they need and what they want and what they’re interested in and why they’re interested in it,” Chaltain said. “It’s not without its issues,. but to me that’s the recipe, whether you’re a five year old in a montessori school or a high school senior that’s trying to decide where to go to college.”

In an ideal world, every school’s programs would be structured around a particular theme established ahead of time, Chaltain maintains.

“It sets up the right filter for a school in deciding which things it’s going to prioritize and which it isn’t,” Chaltain said. “That’s what amazing to me is how many schools still haven’t gotten specific on those things. If your kids are going to be all things, you have to make some choices.”

Whether it’s empathy, critical thinking or collaboration, Chaltain said the organizing principle is the key to success.

“The power comes in a community making the decision to really think that process through together and then hold themselves accountable to what they decide,” Chaltain said. “And to use it as the measuring stick for everything else that they do.”

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