35. Subject Area Mastery: Reasoning as Well as Performing

We recognize what is going on in the district’s first SAC meeting. The change factor, while dramatic, must not ignore the good aspects of traditional American education.

Although the pandemic has deeply affected the organizational structure of today’s schools, they nevertheless have a solid foundation and historical significance.

The new learning infrastructure is not meant to replace schools as we know them. It is to help them become more effective. More capable of preparing students for 21st century challenges.

In brief, the differences follow:

  • professional collaboration
    •   not line-and-staff, top-down decision-making
  • curriculum designed to produce a thoughtful, creative, and realistically productive citizenry
    •   not one meant to prepare societal and economic minions
  • curriculum developed by sensitive and accountable professional educators
    •   not one issued by those in political and economic power or authority
  • assessment of student learning that is ongoing, intense, and multi-faceted
    •   not limited to summative methods for measuring outcomes that generate accountability data

The story moves beyond Barbara and Mary, but they remain central figures. Symbolic of a movement that requires different kinds of teachers.

Teachers who are “somebodies.”

Collaborating with each other in the educational community. Creating powerful curricula and effective instructional programs. Serving as responsive yet assertively accountable educational leaders.

Superintendent Ken Towers and Assistant Superintendent Rebecca Johnson, as ex officio members of the curriculum council and subject area committees, act as colleagues with everyone else. Transformative roles. Both executives and equals. Collaborative decision makers on the curriculum council and subject area committees.

Bryon Garrett’s role as board member is also transformative. He represents both opinions of his peers and perspectives of educators on the SAC. He serves as a conduit between and among professional educators, school patrons, and parents of students enrolled in the district.

Ken, Rebecca, and Bryon are important role models for everyone else on the language arts subject area committee. They convey personas that represent two worlds. One in which leaders have authority to issue directives. Another in which they are “first among equals.”


“First among equals” comes from the Latin “primus inter pares.” An honorary title for a person who holds an official title in an organization. Yet recognized by the organization’s members as being one of them.

Like a prime minister who implements the will of a political party. Or an executive director who serves a professional organization. Or a church pastor who both guides and is responsive to the will of the congregation.

An academic analogy akin to a university administrator introducing herself as “professor of biology currently serving as dean of the college.”

Key to the effectiveness of the language arts SAC is development of the “first among equals” way of thinking and acting. Reaching that goal requires considerable dialogue and a slowly shifting mindset.  

Barbara and Growth of the Collaborative

Decision Making Conversation – Part 10

I (Barbara) started the next meeting of the language arts subject areas committee. We reviewed Mary’s notes from the previous meeting.

Mary surprised me. She put her notes down and asked the liaison members to offer their impressions. Designees of future SACs like herself. As well as Jennifer, media/technology specialist, Betty (math) and Don (music).

Mary began with, “Our liaison members were not given an opportunity to participate in our previous discussion. But listened carefully because they are responsible for continuing the new learning infrastructure model in their own SACs.

“Betty, as chair of the upcoming math subject area committee, what was your takeaway from yesterday’s meeting?”

Betty shifted a little in her chair and almost whispered, “I was kind of conflicted about some of the ideas.

“Math is my teaching field. It is also my favorite discipline. A discipline because it requires focused and logical thinking and acting. A tool for managing or understanding our world systematically, whether in economics, engineering, science, or any other aspect of human life. It cuts across everything we do and are.”

Betty then looked at Ken and said, “Dr. Towers….” 

 “Call me Ken,” he said.

She did a doubletake and smiled. “Okay, Ken, you offered two perspectives you may believe are compatible with the application of both language arts AND mathematics.

“You said students need the power to reflect and draw conclusions based on data. I agree with those points.

“Then you said something about exploring nuances and abstractions in our world.”

Betty cleared her throat. “Maybe language allows for the exploration of subtleties and innovative ideas. But math is only a tool to explain or verify. It appears creativity is being pushed to the forefront of our district’s mastery statement.

“While I do not dispute the importance of creativity in both the academic and real world, I am not sure how my upcoming math SAC should handle that objective.”

Ken sat quietly a couple of minutes before attempting an answer. Looking at the ceiling, he said, “Language is also a tool our brains use to interact with the world. Words and phrases describe and explain, perhaps in a more subjective way than numbers, formulas, and computations. But numbers and words are both just tools to help us navigate challenges and make our lives better.

“Our district is already pushing project learning as a central teaching method. It both simulates real life and engages with it. And real life amalgamates learning, ignoring education’s tendency to separate everything into subjects.

“My son is close to completing his degree in mechanical engineering. He and other students built a special device to help quadriplegics.

“Except for statistics describing muscular behaviors, cognitive impairments, and physical limitations, numbers were not enough for the team to solve the problem. Both linguistic and numerical descriptors were needed to interchangeably epitomize the problem. To invent a solution that worked mechanically, cognitively, and emotionally.

“Creativity used a mix of methods to problem solve. My son’s professor said good engineering is like that, using language and numbers interactively to imagine possible answers. Then build devices that work for the benefit of humankind.

Mary nodded. “Jennifer, as our technology specialist, I wonder what you think.”

Jennifer was already on the edge of her chair. Ready to make a serious contribution.

 ©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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