Chris, Teacher & Co-founder @ Human Restoration Project, OH
“At the center of it all, and perhaps this is corny, but it's humanity, which is the reason why we titled it The Human Restoration Project: that element of restoring the concept that people are people and you should treat them like people even when they're at the school. Especially when they’re at school.”
Chris McNutt is a social studies instructor at Global Impact STEM Academy in Springfield, OH and co-founder of Human Restoration Project. He speaks actively to conferences surrounding best educational practice, invents new ways of learning in his own classroom, and publishes his thoughts surrounding progressive education.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into education.
I'm relatively new to education, although I've been teaching for five years. I teach social studies at Global Impact STEM Academy in Springfield, Ohio. It was my first job out of college. Basically my role there was, I was the only social studies teacher. I'm now the de facto department head in a sense because I've been there the longest.
My journey into education started off highly traditional. I became a more progressive educator due to burnout. I was over planning. I was the kind of person that had the 13 page long lesson plan with all the old tables in it. It was nuts. A couple years in I realized that wasn't sustainable and I didn't really understand what I was doing, so I went back to all that stuff I had learned in college, which ironically was very progressive even though they were the ones to tell you to make these very excessive lesson plans.
For example, Henry Giroux or Paulo Freire or Alfie Kohn or Deborah Meier, people who are insanely progressive, who talk about all these ideas of student choice and voice and empowering students, getting rid of the teacher at the head of the room mentality. I wanted to learn more about that so I read a lot, I thought a lot, and I basically just gave all the power to the kids and it worked out. I have a lot less stress as a result. I was talking to my friend who at the time was an English teacher at our building. I said, "Why don't more people talk about this kind of thing?" And specifically, not only should they talk about it more, why are they all - if they are talking about it - trying to sell it? They use the key terms so they can make millions off of it. This is neo-progressive - they are taking this concept of progressive education and then taking those ideas and using it to bolster a traditional system.
For example, people keep talking about, “It's a guide on the side” or “We need to promote social-emotional learning in schools.” The end game goal is always, "You're a guide on the side so they pass the state test" or, "The social-emotional well-being is to prepare kids to get to college, or prepare them for test anxiety." And it all still revolves around the traditional system. Or, alternatively, they're coming out with these systems to sell and brand and package them and make a lot of money. And a lot of what that neo-progressive movement is involved in is just salvaging gigantic sums of money because professional development is expensive. That frustration for me was trying to figure out why is there not a really good free resource that has all of this information in a pile, where people who are willing to take a pretty big educational and political risk - in a sense - of being full frontal about what we would like to change.
So, Michael Payne, who is my English teacher friend, and I started Human Restoration Project, which is meant to be a place where the most progressive ideas can exist without being corporate on paper or anything. It's all just sponsor driven and it's just there, it's a resource.
Think about a child in your life that you care deeply about. Tell me a little bit about that child and what makes them unique or special.
“But just by treating her with respect and dignity, that was enough to transform a kid who did horrible in school to doing amazing in school…because they found a home, a community …that is a giant transformation that should be happening in every single school.”
I had this student three years ago, Julie, and if you were to look at the sheet of paper about her background: she was expelled from eighth grade, she pretty much failed every single class and she was expelled for violent behavior. So, being a ninth grade teacher, looking at that is usually - even if we don't want it to be this way - terrifying. "Oh my god, what is going to happen with this kid?" Interestingly enough, Julie went on to get all A's in school and did absolutely incredible. No one had actually ever spent any time giving her trust, or compassion, or care. Literally treating someone like a human being somehow has no longer become the norm in some traditional education systems.
For example, Julie has an incredibly rough home life. We've been in contact with CPS. She was talking to me the other day and she doesn't have food stamps right now because of the government shutdown. She has a rough life. She has incredible anxiety issues. As in once a week it was going on that I would say, "Visit the guidance counselor," and trying to help her with those issues. I am not a trained guidance counselor - I am probably one of the least social people - I can tend to be kind of robotic, but just by treating her with respect and dignity, that was enough to transform a kid who did horrible in school to doing amazing in school. Not because I was trying to trick her to get all As, but because they found a home, a community to the point where she wanted to come to school just because it was good place to be. And that is a giant transformation that should be happening in every single school.
People like Julie, they have a ton of energy to offer. Plus she's a very talented artist, a very talented linguist. She was an advocate, changing things. She has a huge heart. But it worries me that if she would have never came to our school, it's likely that she just would have been a number on paper that was pushed out of the education system.
Think about Julie in her adulthood: she's out of school in her 30s, living her adult life. What is it that you hope for her? What would make a good life?
That's a good question. I mean it's a lot to unpack. To me, the good life is incredibly subjective. A good life is whatever you feel a good life is. But, if you were asked and you considered the question of what a good life is early enough, you could make that decision. If school afforded Julie the opportunity to ask those questions so that she could realize and form what the concept of a good life is so that in the future they don't look back and go, "Well, what if I would have done this, would I be a lot happier? Or would I have been more successful?" That's going to be completely dependent on how they are defining it. I just want to be sure that they have the opportunity to think about that so that way they can come to their own conclusion.
Is there anything else around what you think makes a good life that you would hope for her?
The main thing that I would push upon anyone in my class is that it's a society where everyone is comfortable living - they have all their basic needs and they don't have to worry about serious things, like homelessness or lack of food. We would have a security blanket. And that we're all empathetic towards each other. At the end of the day, if everyone gets along that's really the kind of community that we need to build, which is the thing that we should all start in our classrooms. I don't think you could have a good life without a society that reflects those values.
Is there anything that you worry about getting in the way of Julie having that good life?
One, our society does not reflect those values in any way, shape or form. This might be a little bit political, but we live in a neoliberal society that reflects sorting winners and losers both through education and post-schooling. You go into and come out of school in pretty much the same systemic inequity that you began with, and school’s reproducing those barriers. So just from a giant systemic cultural perspective, all of that is working against her. However, I would hope that through experiences in school, Julie and those like her can at least experience the possibility that they know that there are opportunities I provide for them and they can stand up in order to do the organizing around solving those problems or find things that work for them.
Is there anything else around the type of society you would want her to live in?
In a very ideal world, it would be a society where people are not only empathetic toward each other but they are also standing up for one another. That happens by creating the school as a community where everyone is recognized, not only by the teacher but also by their peers. Recognizing that each other's voice is important is a good stepping stone to helping that happen. But again, just the way society is set up that's an incredibly hard thing to do because people tend to stay around people from their own background, either economically or racially. I think there's a lot of different systemic problems that reflect those issues.
What specifically do you think the role of school should be, in the ideal sense, in creating that life?
There's a lot of differentiating. There would have to be shift from the teacher as being this authoritarian - the banking model of education - that you're giving every single kid all of the knowledge, that you're the only one that knows anything and everyone's there just to learn and listen from you. Because it's flawed, not only from a content standpoint: you could definitely scale back the majority of that content and students would still be well prepared for their lives. I can teach that information.
But, on a more grandiose scale, my issue with that style and model of education is that the human is no longer valued in the world. You're taking away all power from someone and saying that they are not as important, or their worth is measured based on knowing what you know, not knowing what they know. And I think that's very detrimental to - I sound very hippie-like here - the soul. It takes away your curiosity and your creativity and your will to think that you're intelligent.
The number of kids that come into our school - high schoolers, or even from another class - and they think they're dumb because they fail a test blows my mind. A lot of kids actually go day-to-day feeling worthless. Either those that are failing at everything or even the kids that get all As, and they get a B and they think they're dumb. It's not necessarily the teacher's fault but the way that education is set up that reflects that inequity and reflects that overall, looming sense of what's going on in the school system and its sorting and competitive nature.
What do you think schools should do to build that vision of society?
In my ideal vision for society, if we're going to establish this collective community, the school should reflect that. A society where the children in the room are just as valued as the teacher.
I'm not proposing that kids do whatever they want because a lot of people take that to the extreme: "Kids are going to be running around the room, doing whatever they want." That's not really what progressive education is trying to get at. What it's trying to get at is giving students a voice that actually matters. A lot of times we put constraints on that and we say, "You know, they're allowed to choose between doing a poster or writing a paper." Well, no. That's literally just providing a faux choice of how to do an assignment. But the assignment is still there. In an ideal classroom there would be an opportunity where, not only could a kid choose to do a paper or a poster, they could also choose if they don't really want to talk about that topic and they want to talk about a different topic. That could happen.
I think that if you started education out in a sense where school is an environment where people have a voice, they're allowed to learn together, they respect each other and you teach those values, kids would no longer get into the situation where they feel like school doesn't matter to them. Which would require a drastic change of pedagogy, an educational paradigm shift. There's schools that do it but it's relatively rare.
Do you think schools will play this ideal role for Julie? For all kids? No kids?
I guess on a more positive angle, I feel like there are pockets of progressive educators doing this kind of stuff everywhere. I'm going to assign the label progressive even if they don't deem themselves that: teachers that care about kids, they are listening to them, and they change how learning works in their classroom to the benefits of every kid in that room. I feel like there's always at least one teacher per building that cares about that kind of thing. However, at the end of the day, with the way the system is set up, it just is always the weak versus the strong. If your school has class ranking and some kids fail out and are pushed out of the system and some kids do really well and go on to have very successful lives, as in they have more opportunity presented to them, then you're still ranking high and low kids based off of typically their background.
Do you think people agree with you on your answers to these questions?
For a lot of teachers that I've met, their idea of the good life is you either provide a job or provide some kind of success that can be measured in monetary value. A lot of our teachers need to train for the job rate, so that you can get a job out of high school or out of college. But there's more to life than money. And to focus only on job rated skills is doing a disservice to the kids. In fact, improving the job rate in schools comes automatically if you do these other things.
And what about for the role of school? Do you think that people would agree with you on that?
Not at all. I make the arguments daily either online or sometimes at school. There seems to be four different ways. You have the more extreme way than me which is completely opposed to the model of public school and wants to just allow kids to do whatever they want, complete freedom. I’m a huge advocate for public school because I think if you're going to solve those inequities you have to have a free place for people where they can come do that and solve troubles. But then, there’s the other that's completely advocating against these ideas are the knowledge-backed, like the Hirsch argument, which is you have to have these types of knowledge in order to have someone who grows and prospers in society. As in, they have to have Algebra 1, Algebra 2, English 1, English 2. This will make them well rounded individuals who will go on to do great things. Knowledge about curriculum, or traditional education, in my opinion is a very imperialist approach to education. It is this colonizer idea, trying to fix people or solve a problem they might have. But I don't think the majority of teachers view it that way. I don't think they roll into the classroom thinking, "I'm going to imperialize and fix these kids."
“If you're going to provide everyone an equitable society, you have to give them all a level playing field through their education…. They want to figure out what the good life is. That's the whole point.”
Why do you think we should have public schooling system?
If you're going to provide everyone an equitable society, you have to give them all a level playing field through their education. They have to have opportunities provided to them by the community and by adults who have their best interests in mind and give them a voice in their lives and figure out what it is they want to do. They want to figure out what the good life is. That's the whole point. And, to also provide basic things I think everyone would agree upon like basic reading and writing.
There’s no denying that literacy rates skyrocketed once common schools became a thing. Kids are given really basic things at school. I sometimes hesitate to say that because some people take that too far. There's a ton of things you wouldn't need, like Shakespeare. You don't need to know about mitochondria – it’s nice to have. You could have offerings of these things and have it in there. But it's not necessarily a requirement.
But it gets into the question of why do we have schools, in terms of why do we have that there? You could definitely trace those things back to an imperialist, industrialized society wanting a bunch of trained workers that could go into a job. There's a ton of information surrounding different business people investing in education because they want a solidified workforce. Although I love works by Tony Wagner and I really appreciate the message they're sending, it does tend to get very close to, “We no longer need to prepare people for the work in auto factories, we need to prepare them to work inside Google,” which I don't agree with. Because also it's still the purpose of education that you're not just changing your classroom around.
How do you see your work at the Human Restoration Project aligning to this vision?
The whole point of the Human Restoration Project was to have a collective voice for progressive educators to feel like they're not crazy. Because when I first started doing these things I thought I was nuts. A lot of the principles of progressive education make you feel like a bad teacher. If you're walking past my room, the kids are not necessarily paying attention to me. They're paying attention to each other, or they're a little bit “bad” at times or they might be playing games on their phones sometimes, doing kid things. It doesn't mean that you're a bad teacher if your classroom looks like that. That's the first thing. And also, in the same vein, you're not crazy because you're going to cancel a lot of the things that you were taught in school. I was taught in school about progressive education but when it came to student teaching I was taught to teach traditionally. It's a weird, cognitive dissonance of my teacher training.
The second point of the Human Restoration Project was to be a resource where people could go to learn more or potentially use research to deflate or change someone's opinion of traditional education. As part of our podcast, every single time I talk to someone who has a PhD in Child Development, all they do is say how we need teachers to talk to child development experts, because they are focused outside of the education field. But the people that are primarily focused on the education field are the ones propping up standardized tests: “Research that says if you do this you'll have higher standardized test scores.” But when you look at what improves motivation, or what improves curiosity or creativity, all of those things pretty much support progressive education. I started documenting all that research on our website and we have hundreds of studies. So, it's a win-win for me. I have my knowledge-base and I can also share it with other people. It’s a product of the people.
What's a success that you are particularly proud of in your work?
It's grown pretty steadily with all things considered. It's something we never spent any money on, I never handed anything out. It's has always been through social media or people on that I meet at a few conferences I've been to that weren't even oriented to the Human Restoration Project. It was for my school. They wanted to learn more about things that we're talking about. On our podcast, we have a thousand unique listens on a series of episodes. And about 200-300 unique views on our blog each day.
Something that I particularly enjoy is keeping up with the people that have done podcasts with us. We reached out to them when they are moderately popular. We've spoken to them now, like Sunil Singh, someone I spoke to a while ago and he had just written his first book. And now he's signed a deal with a book publishing company. It’s awesome to follow people’s journeys that we’ve talked to.
This question is around your personal experience of school. Something that we're really curious about is what makes a learning experience empowering. This can be in school or it could be outside of school.
Take a second to think about what you would consider to be an empowering education experience, and then tell us about that experience and why it was empowering for you.
Sure. I can tell you it didn't come from school. I shouldn't swear but I was a shitty student. I was horrible. Eighth and ninth grade I got a truancy letter because I didn't go to school so often. I got decent grades but I could care less about school. So, it didn't happen in school... I think for me, probably the most empowering learning experience I ever had was my second year teaching. I realized I could do things completely different in my classroom. I had the opportunity to go to the Deeper Learning Conference by High Tech High. That showed me that school could be done differently and there's proof of it. Up until that point everything I had read was theory. I never actually knew that there were schools that are offering all these opportunities. It's no longer theory anymore.
In terms of the educational experience, I liked the fact that there were no lectures at the conference. It was just going into workshops and working. Why would a bunch of education majors teach each other the wrong way about education about project-based learning? But at the conference, the way that it was presented was the kind of way that I enjoyed learning it because it was the same way that I'd expect to teach my kids. Because adults are not that much different. That to me was incredibly, incredibly moving. Both from meeting a bunch of different people from around the country that were all in the same boat and also just seeing that school and the things they were doing.
You talked about progressive education a lot.
What do you see as the core tenets of progressive education?
As a quick plug ... we do have a primer for Human Restoration Project that has that information because well...it's weird. By that, I mean it seems simple, but it’s quite complicated.
It's hard to answer that question because it's not like it's a thing where if you take two out of ten then all of sudden you have progressive institutions. It's good to aim for everything at once. But the core thing, and I said it a million times, is that students have legitimate voice in their class. That's an incredibly deep concept. That means that kids can choose what standards they want to teach, which means that you as an educator can change the relationship - you're steering with critical pedagogy. You have to be able to see yourself at the same level as your kids.
Critical pedagogy, student voice and choice, and then getting into experiential learning - getting back to Dewey - you can't have true experiential learning unless that relationship changes between teacher and student. And then getting into disciplinary action, you're into restorative justice. So you’re not expressing authoritarianism and just telling kids three strikes and you're expelled from the school because we don't like you, because you're different than everybody else. Or you're doing something that not deemed “appropriate.” And just overall promoting that love and well-being.
At the center of it all, and perhaps this is corny, but it's humanity, which is the reason why we titled it The Human Restoration Project: that element of restoring the concept that people are people and you should treat them like people even when they're at the school. Especially when they’re at school.
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