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“We Shape Our Buildings; Thereafter They Shape Us”

Editors note: This is a guest post by Michael C. Obel-Omia, Head of School, Paul Cuffee Charter School in Providence, RI at the Critical Transformative Leadership and Policy Conference, UMass Dartmouth 17 November 2012.

Michael Obel-Omia, Head of School, Paul Cuffee Charter School

Because you have been sitting quietly listening to us for the past thirty minutes, I want to engage you. I’ll speak later about this passé teaching technique that we are employing, but for now, let’s elicit your voice. Consider the Empire State Building. Tell me, do you think important work occurs there, yes or no? There is no wrong answer, friends, just speak up and let me know what you think. Think about the White House. Does important work happen there? How about the US Capitol Building? How about our own State Capitol Building? Does important work occur in those spaces? How about the Louvre—ah, I love your responses now; it takes a work of true art to elicit a full-throated response from you?! How about the Taj Mahal or the Palace at Versailles? How about a garage?

Paul Cuffee Charter School, Providence, RI

The lion’ share of you agreed that each one of these buildings has important work occurring in each space, and because you are such well-trained 21st century egalitarians you even think that important work occurs in the garage. I agree with you, but I disagree with you that we are inspired to think that good work occurs in a garage. There is little inspiration in the garage’s design, and I think that you have to admit that, particularly when compared with the Louvre, Capitol Buildings, the White House, or the Empire State Building. Now, I know that the Taj Mahal is more decorative than utilitarian, but my point is that its size, its shape, its position in the community suggest that the work that occurs there is important work. Back to my main point: good work, important work, can and does occur in a garage, but as you drive by one, you don’t stop and think about it; you aren’t inspired by it.

Winston Churchill remarked, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” and at our school, the Paul Cuffee School, good, important work occurs in our converted garage, but few are inspired by its design.  In education, we need to create spaces that honor the work of our Faculty, inspire the Faculty to teach creatively, and allow for students to imagine and to believe that where they are and what they are doing is important, is vital.  A beautiful building, like the State House in Providence, suggests that important work occurs there and stirs feelings of respect.  A converted garage: not so much.

In that converted garage, our Faculty and Staff do exceptional things.  At our school, the Paul Cuffee School, we practice not only differentiated instruction, but also, and equally important, we use experiential learning to educate, inspire, and uplift our students.  Founded in 2001, the Paul Cuffee School, the highest performing fully urban school in the state, is a “maritime charter school for Providence public schoolchildren currently serving 691 students from kindergarten through eleventh grade. We provide rigorous academics, individualized teaching, and hands-on learning within a school culture of mutual respect and personal responsibility.”  With almost 80% of our students living in poverty and 89% minority students, you might expect our scores to represent the challenges that poverty dumps at the doorsteps of urban schools.  No, we don’t use that convenient excuse, and our standardized testing, higher than the state’s average on each NECAP session, affirms our belief that all students can achieve.

We accomplish our goals through differentiated instruction, experiential learning, caring about the students’ emotional and social selves, and by hiring passionate, persuasive, persistent, patient educators who learn their craft well, seek to grow as educators, collaborate effectively with their colleagues, believe that every child can learn, and love each child for who he or she is.  Differentiated instruction allows for each student to acquire content, to process it, and make sense of it at a level and speed that benefits him or her.  In addition, we firmly believe in experiential learning, working with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Commission, Narragansett Bay Commission,  Alton Jones, and Save the Bay to teach our children about their environment; the University of Rhode Island, and Brown University to study fish and their habitats, and sharks, motion, and aerodynamics; Johnson and Wales University to learn culinary skills; and the Anthony Quinn Foundation to see magnificent art and to understand the artist’s process. We also invite authors such as Laurie Halse Anderson and Torrey Maldonado to improve knowledge of history and understanding of the writing process; Emmy-Award winning singer Bill Harley to learn story-telling; Community Boating Center to acquire sailing skills.  And we travel to a host of museums, farms, and historical homes for the purpose of learning with all our senses.  In addition, high school students traveled to New Hampshire this autumn to campaign for a presidential candidate, and other students, middle school students, worked a telephone bank for one of the presidential candidates on Election Day; day off?  Not for those volunteers, who were learning and assisting one of the candidates.  We give as well, partnering with Rhode Island College, Brown University, Roger Williams College/Gordon School, and Middlebury College to allow student-teachers to hone their craft under the watchful eye of our skilled educators.

One of our most prized experiential learning pieces is Empty Bowls, a project that connects our students with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, as our students make bowls in art class and sell them for $10 at a community dinner.  The profits benefit Rhode Island’s most needy families, and teaches our students about philanthropy, empathy, and service learning.  In addition, we have secured a $400,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to remediate a lot adjacent to the garage, so that the students have a play space that allows for their physical growth.  We are using the remediation project as an opportunity to teach our students about stewardship and the environment.  Teaching and learning can and does happen everywhere at our School.  In spite of our conducting our business in a converted garage, we believe that a school can achieve wonderful accomplishments, as long as the educators, the most important component of education, are well-trained, well-supported, encouraged to stretch themselves and to be innovative, believe in the School’s mission and vision, and care deeply about and for the students before them.

And our primary purpose in this work is to inculcate in our students the skills, behaviors, habits, and routines that lead to success in life.  Our responsibility is great, for we are educating children for jobs, careers, and fields that don’t even exist today.  We want our students prepared, so we emphasize 21st century skills. We make sure that students have both a deep understanding of the major principles and facts in core subjects, such as mathematics, language arts, science, history, foreign language, and also, and more important, are able to apply this knowledge to important contemporary challenges, such as global warming, financial sustainability, health and environmental crises.  Students must not only have the information, but also, they must have the skills to apply the knowledge, and those skills are acquired with differentiated instruction and experiential learning.  Or as the wise saw shares, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do, and I understand.”  As William Butler Yeats noted, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  We need to share skills around taking initiative, leading with care, compassion, and empathy, adapting to a hastily changing world, and seeking to solve problems, not just identify them.  In essence, students need to learn how to be creative thinkers who understand and embrace diverse people, cultures, traditions, ways of thinking, and work to be compassionate, empathetic, and responsible risk-takers.  In our converted garage, we work on these skills, behaviors, habits, and routines, hopeful that our important work will produce students who embrace their responsibilities as citizens.

We firmly believe that the 20th century hegemony, which allowed for a ruling class to dominate our culturally diverse country (and potentially our world), will not work in the 21st century.  Students need to collaborate, to work together, to embrace a new paradigm in terms of learning.  We have a simple motto at Paul Cuffee School: we take care of ourselves, we take care of one another, we take care of our community, so that we can take care of our world.  In order to do that, our students need to be self aware, aware of others, and aware of their community and its needs.  So, in essence, we are teaching awareness in that converted garage, even as you drive by unaware of its existence.

I have argued the other side of this coin, as recently as 2007 in a published article called “The Edifice Complex.”  In that article, as I was comparing the building of baseball stadia to the explosion of building that has been occurring on colleges and independent schools, I opined, “We can continue to erect beautiful new athletic complexes, awe-inspiring arts wings, and spectacular science centers, but if we fail to deliver on our mission statements and ignore the core reasons why we have opened our doors, then we shall suffer fates similar to Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.  We shall have glittering palaces, but no one there to listen to our brilliant teachers and inspiring coaches.  In essence, as we focus on our physical plants, we run the risk of neglecting our missions: to provide an excellent academic experience, to prepare young minds for the challenges ahead, and to instill equity and justice in our students, so that they can build a better tomorrow.  People, our faculty, will help them do that far better than our glitzy buildings will.”  People, our faculty, are far more important than the building in terms of sharing what is best about a society, but we also need spaces that reflect the significance of what is happening in that building.  At a place like Paul Cuffee School, which resides not only in a converted garage, but also in a dilapidated, outdated, utilitarian Catholic School building from the 50’s (our middle school), and in a converted IRS building without a gymnasium or a meeting space (our high school), our facilities neither reflect the good work that we are doing, nor do they allow for teachers to teach creatively.  They fail to honor the Herculean efforts of our faculty and staff, who, too often, labor in spaces that undermine their ability to teach imaginatively.  Our desire for more aesthetically pleasing space isn’t vanity; rather, it is our desire for spaces that honor our teachers’ work, allow for their inventiveness, inspire our charges, support our culture, and improve our ability to deliver pedagogically significant ideas.

Do we need the Louvre, or the Capitol Building, or the White House, or the Empire State Building to teach?  No.  But, if you look at school buildings of the 19th century and early 20th century, you see that these buildings once held, by design and location, a central place in the heart of a community.  Paul Cuffee School sits in a post-industrial section of Providence, tucked away from the center of activity.  We have created our own buzz by improving the land around us with the EPA grant, and by producing the highest test scores in the state for a fully urban district.  That’s great, but we would do a great service for our students, our teachers, and our community, were we to have spaces that sought to honor and reflect the good work that quietly occurs daily.

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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