The 2022 EL Education National Conference is back in person! Submit a proposal to lead a conference session by June 24.
Header image

“What is the purpose of learning?” Teaching at an EL Education School Helped Me Find the Answer

  • Date

  • Author

    Sydney Chaffee

As a teacher at Codman Academy, an EL Education credentialed school in Dorchester, MA, I am used to fielding tough questions from students. But a question posed on a recent trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia stumped me: "What is the purpose of learning?" 

On April 10th, I tried to answer this question at the EL Education 25th Anniversary Gala. You'll find my remarks below:

Thank you all so much for being here tonight and for inviting me to speak to you.

I got the chance to travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in September, to talk to teachers and students and other folks who care about education. One night, during a discussion with a local film club, a man raised his hand and asked me, somewhat skeptically, “What is the purpose of learning?”
I’ve gotten pretty good at answering unpredictable questions over the last year. But this question threw me. “The purpose of learning”? My mind went blank. I could not think of how to begin to articulate an answer.

I’ve taught 9th grade Humanities at Codman Academy, an EL Education school in Boston, for the past 11 years. So I know what learning looks like in my classroom. But I was stopped short by the question: what’s the PURPOSE of all of that beauty? Why do we do it?

I went back to my hotel room that night and started writing. And what I decided was that, while education looks different depending on where we go, learning looks remarkably similar.

Learning looks like joy. It looks like discovery. It looks like creativity and problem-solving, collaboration and failure and revision and reflection.
I came to see that for me, one purpose of learning, in all of its joy and magic, is connection. We learn so that we can connect with one another’s humanity and with one another’s ideas. We learn so that we can grow together and become smarter as a collective. We learn so we can make the world smaller.

But these purposes of learning get lost, too often, in an outdated vision of what school is for.
That’s why I feel so lucky to have found my way to an EL Education school at the beginning of my career. I didn’t understand what EL was at the time, but I knew, from the very first moment I stepped into the school, that I’d found a place where the purpose of learning was about so much more than grades or AP credits or test scores.

And what I’ve come to see, over the course of my career so far, is that this isn’t necessarily because Codman is a unicorn of a place, where there has been some magical confluence of people and ideas. It’s largely because we were founded as an EL Education school. Meg Campbell, one of our cofounders, helped create the original vision for Expeditionary Learning. So always, throughout our school’s life, our work has been informed by EL’s design principles, and we have been members of this national network of schools where people believe that learning matters—not just to an individual child’s future, but to the future of our society.

Last week I had the privilege of co-hosting Codman’s 17th anniversary celebration with our head of school, Thabiti Brown. As part of the event, we invited back a few alumni to share what they’ve been doing since graduation. One alum we brought back was a young woman named Shamara who graduated in 2009.
Here’s a picture of Shamara when she was a student at Codman. This was one of my favorite moments from my second year of teaching. All of the kids at our school held an impromptu rally and celebration the morning after President Obama was elected for the first time.

This is Shamara now, being interviewed on a local TV show about the organization she founded and runs, which is called Bringing Back Boston. In her own words, “Bringing Back Boston is a network formed to address mental and public health issues, including trauma, in Boston’s under-resourced communities.” Shamara works with other community leaders and organizations to “use music and community events as a release for collective trauma.” One of Shamara’s primary goals is to marshal community support for folks who are struggling with stigmatized mental health issues. She explains, “I want people to leave any event hosted by Bringing Back Boston inspired to be themselves.”

I was amazed when I learned what Shamara has been up to, and I wondered whether being a student at an EL Education school like Codman had primed her in any way to do this amazing work that she’s doing now.

She told me that it did, that being at Codman—learning in classes with different kinds of students and collaborating with them—taught her how to accept people for who they are. More than that, she said, it helped her understand her role as someone who can help people grow into who she knows they can be.

But her education didn’t just help Shamara develop empathy; it also armed her with skills. She told me, “With the knowledge from Codman, I have learned to let others express their emotions towards oppressive systems while helping them create solutions.” She says she came back to Boston after graduating from college “not to make a difference, but to ‘be’ the difference.”

I am so incredibly proud of Shamara. Her work exemplifies what can happen when passionate young people have access to the kind of education that empowers them to believe that their voices matter and that they can shape the world they want to live in. Shamara’s story is a testament to the power of the EL Education model.

Because here’s the thing – in the world of EL Education, Shamara is not an outlier. She is a shining example of the kinds of adults who emerge from EL schools: creative, thoughtful, empathetic, and absolutely devoted to making the world a better place.

EL students know that the purpose of learning is so much bigger than getting good grades. They know that the purpose of learning is empowerment. It’s to gain real skills that directly apply to the world outside. They know that it’s about connection—connections among diverse people, connections between here and there, among books and works of art and mathematical theorems and historical events, connections between the work of the classroom and the work of the world.

And that’s why what we’re doing in EL schools is so important. It’s so much bigger than helping students become scholars. It’s about helping students become active citizens who are ready to engage.
I get to bear witness to these transformations all the time.

Almost a year ago, last May, my 9th grade students put on a play. And on the night of the play, I stood backstage, peeking out from behind the curtain at the audience filling up while my students paced around in various states of costume. They had been preparing for this play for months.

Every year, all of my ninth graders—including those with autism, English language learners, and even kids who begin the year with crippling stage fright—put on a play. That night marks the culmination of a yearlong partnership with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company: nine months of deepening literacy skills through the arts.

When I dropped the curtain back into place and turned around, I saw that my kids were completely melting down. Everything was falling apart. One of the stars of the show, who was set to narrate the opening scene, began stalking around with his fidget spinner, muttering to himself, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I’m not going out there.” Another boy, who fashioned himself as the toughest kid in the school, started yelling: “Why are you so scared? You’re just gonna quit? That’s stupid! If he’s quitting, I’m quitting!” He plopped down into a chair and pulled his shirt over his face. A girl nearby burst into tears, the stage manager hurried past whispering into a headset, and somebody knocked over a bunch of props.

I was about to do my teacher thing—step in, comfort everyone, and manage the situation, but then something beautiful happened. The crying girl was surrounded by a gaggle of her peers, who threw their arms around her and told her, “It’s going to be okay. You know your lines. Let’s go practice again.” Fidget Spinner’s friends shoved earbuds in his ears so he could listen to a song that would calm him down. And the tough guy? Two seniors who had been through this four years earlier pulled his shirt off his face to reveal streaks of tears running down his cheeks. “I’m really scared,” he admitted. They rubbed his back and gave him a pep talk. One by one, other ninth graders came over, hugged him, and told him, “You’re going to do great. We need you.” I stepped back, realizing that my students didn’t need me to fix anything for them.

At Codman, and in EL schools all over the country, we teach our students the value of Habits of Scholarship. At our school, we have five: responsibility, effort, critique, collaboration, and compassion. Those first three fit pretty neatly into the work of school. Do your work, do it to your best ability, take feedback—these are obvious skills our students need to build as scholars. But the last two—collaboration and compassion—aren’t always as easy to teach. Sometimes, fifteen-year-olds have a hard time understanding why working together and being nice matter to their schoolwork. But there, backstage, as everything threatened to collapse, I saw my students taking the risk to truly demonstrate compassionate collaboration. Not for a grade, not because anyone was watching, but because they are amazing human beings with a boundless capacity for love.

Standing there in the wings, I remembered, again, why I am in love with teaching. Working with young people means that I get to witness these small acts of brilliant humanity all the time. I get to continually be inspired and challenged and amazed. When we take the time to teach kids not just academic skills, but also habits like these—we truly see them as full people, as whole humans. We have the distinct privilege of watching young people grow up into themselves. And we have this special, hopeful perspective on the future, because we see the people who will inherit it.

So tonight, I’d like to invite you to think deeply about the purpose of learning. If you believe, like I do, that the purpose of learning is bigger than what we might have thought when we were students—grades and tests and rankings, memorization and formulas—then you believe in EL Education.

If you believe, like I do, that what our country needs right now are people who can listen with empathy, write with evidence, speak with clarity, and act with conviction and love—then you believe in EL Education.

If you believe, like I do, that kids are capable of so much more than we often give them credit for—then you believe in EL Education.
There is no more important time to support this vision of what learning can look like and why it matters. So I’ll end by just saying thank you—for believing in kids like mine and in teachers like me and my colleagues all across the country. It’s my honor to be a part of this moment and this movement… and to connect with you all tonight.

Thank you.