The last keynote of the 2011 ASCD Annual Conference in San Francisco, was Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, professor from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist, has authored numerous books and has spent a portion of her career examining school culture, helping schools understand themselves. Most recently, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot spent a few years interviewing people in their 50s-70s to record ways in which people embrace change in their life as they contemplate retirement or a career change. This work became the subject of her most recent book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk & Adventure in the 25 years after 50. She tells the story of a lawyer who leaves a law firm for divinity school, a mechanical engineer who becomes an artist, a physicist who becomes a middle school teacher, and a businesswoman who returns to international relief work. These stories framed her keynote at ACSD entitled, The Third Chapter: Adventure, Passion, and Risk.
Books written by Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot are:
- Worlds Apart: Relationships Between Families and Schools (1978)
- Beyond Bias: Perspectives on Classrooms (1978)
- The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Courage (1983)
- Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer (1988)
- Respect (1990)
- I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation (1995)
- The Art and Science of Portraiture (1997)
- The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other (2003)
- The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 (2009)
Also, see an interview that Bill Moyers conducted on PBS with Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot. This interview will encapsulate a portion of what she shared with us in San Francisco at ASCD.
Her keynote was inspiring, poetic, and visionary. It is hard to put into words the “speech” of a person who is so articulate and motivating. In the beginning, she talked about the value of story, a central component of her most recent book.
“When we all meet we communicate with family stories.”
She pointed out that the value of story emerges when we look for meaning in our lives. Stories become a compelling way in which we communicate with each other. Given the power of storytelling, we should teach students in our schools to learn how to write and tell stories. Is storytelling part of our curriculum, and if not, what can we do about that? Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot is a master at telling meaningful stories., not only in her talks but also in her books.
As she continued her reflections on the wisdom of people in their 50s-70s, I couldn’t help but think how important it will be for school reform to be led by centered, focused, & healthy educators, who serve as role models for our students. Where are we, the elders of the teaching profession, on our journey towards healthy development in our efforts to reform schooling in the 21st Century? Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot provided many “bright spots” in her efforts to show that our elders have the wisdom to lead the new learning represented in The Third Chapter.
To find meaning in life, we have to be prepared to reinvent our lives in purposeful ways. I saw the picture Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot was painting in her keynote as the work of innovative, creative, and adaptive people who are “willing to take risks.”
I was struck by the contrast of her keynote with those of Chip Heath and Peter Reynolds. Each of their keynotes were slick, technological, and interesting. Their messages were grisp, but required technology as a tool to get the message across. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot engaged us with her poetic images, her literary prowess, and her powerful stories. A throw back to a different way of communicating a message in the 21st Century.
She talked about the idea of “giving forward versus giving back.” She encouraged those elders in the 50s-70s to engage in service that looks to the future, in which their “altruism provides a vision for our students.”
Tweet from ASCD
We need to listen to the voices of our children and our children’s children. – Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot #ASCD11
This quote from her keynote summarizes one aspect of the journey that people she interviewed were on:
“your vocation is that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s greatness needs.”
She pointed out that the most difficult part of “venturing forward is losing the fear to act. Roma, one of the people she interviewed, changed from being a physics professor to teaching astronomy to middle school children. In making the transition to a new career, she had to “lose the fear” of teaching younger people. She had to learn new ways of doing things in life. There were many risks, but risks worth taking.
In concluding her keynote, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot presented her five meta-lessons.
Lesson #1 rethinking purposes & boundaries of schooling in US.
Lesson #2: inter-generational relationships, reduce inter-generational segregation between young and old, tapping into relationships, and build bridges between generations.
Lesson #3: Scarcity & reinvention, she found many tales of struggle, adaptation, resilience. Scarcity moves us to adapt.
Lesson #4: Crossing boundaries into unknown-our efforts to “give forward” require that we follow our curiosity, we stay interested in new learning, and we remodel our lives.
Lesson #5: Imagery & innovation-fundamental social change requires a collaborative effort that will demand a change in our discourse & policies.
Tweek from ASCD
Lessons from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: new learning requires us to rethink the structure of schooling.
In lesson #1, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot referred to a need to rethink how we envision “speed.” Traditional school is about getting to finish line. What are we racing towards? What are we doing to our young people as we push them through school in a very rigid fashion? Through our system of grading, high-stakes testing, yearly promotion to a new grade, and the march to graduation, we tend to label students in ways that can damage their sense of self and their creativity. We have the:
- good student,
- honor student,
- disengaged student,
- unmotivated student, or
- ADHD student.
A question that I keep coming back to that relates to Lesson #1 is the path to mastery of ideas, content, skills or a course of study the same for every student? I think the answer is no, but then our K-12 schooling looks almost the same for all students.
In her presentation of Lesson #1, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot worries about the contrast between in-school versus out-of-school learning. She sees these two forms of learning to be out-of-synch. What we learn in our traditional schools is disconnected from the real world we live in. We need to connect the two in more enduring ways.
From Lesson #2, she would conclude that people in their “third chapter” need to be seen as role models and resources for our younger people. She encourages us to build bridges and connect schools and students to the stories of their “elders.” In fact, bring the wisdom and resources of our “elders” into our schools.
From Lesson #4, she talked about taking risks or leaps of faith. Granted we will experience failure along the way, but that’s part of learning. Losing the fear, especially the fear of failure, will allow us to take risks, “giving forward.” I was struck by this image she painted:
“failure is our diagnostic tool for how we learn, and leads us to develop empathy so that we can put ourselves in the shoes of our teachers.”
I hope I have painted a picture of her inspiring keynote. It certainly lifted up the audience to give her a well-deserved, standing ovation.