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Innovative educator urges grads: ‘Keep it simple’

By From page A3 | June 14, 2013

Educator Larry Rosenstock — whose multi-faceted background includes stints as a carpenter, a high school principal, an attorney, a director of documentary films and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — has some advice for the 2013 graduates of the UC Davis School of Education:

Don’t reach too many hasty conclusions about which students they work with will go far.

“I feel that as a country, we mispredict who can and can’t do what, based on ethnicity, gender, language ability and over-reliance on standardized tests,” Rosenstock said at Wednesday afternoon’s ceremony at the Mondavi Center.

His mention of “over-reliance on standardized tests” drew a spontaneous cheer from the audience of upwards of 1,000 people.

Rosenstock recalled that when he began his career as an educator in the 1970s and 1980s, he taught carpentry at urban high schools in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., while working on a law degree at Boston University.

“And some of those working-class carpentry kids (in the high school classes) were just as bright as the law school kids,” he said.

Rosenstock also reflected on how education can become institutionalized, mentioning that he served as principal of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which traces its roots back to 1648.

“Having been the principal at the oldest high school in the United States, I found that every time someone did something foolish, another rule was made,” he said, urging them to consider a more flexible and less codified approach.

Rosenstock recalled the words of jazz legend Charles Mingus: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

“Keep it simple,” Rosenstock added for emphasis.

“People overemphasize stability,” he continued. “There needs to be churning, too.”

But he also urged the graduates to “challenge ideas, don’t challenge people. Schools must be founded on fairness and respect.”

He added that “You need a narrative for your work in education. Develop that narrative well. There is a role for storytelling, but it shouldn’t be overused. You shouldn’t just have the adults talking and the students listening, you should have the adults listening and the students talking” at least part of the time as well.

Good teaching, he said, involves “developing young people’s heads and hands” — a concept that Rosenstock has pursued in recent years as CEO and founding principal at High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter school that uses a project-based learning approach. The school was launched in 2000 and now has 11 campuses.

High Tech High simultaneously serves students in grades K-12, and also includes a comprehensive teacher certification program and a graduate school of education.

Rosenstock also suggested that the graduates not be overly fearful of making mistakes. “In terms of innovation, there is no innovation without error. Great architects, great artists and musicians — and educators — are all obsessed with the question ‘How can I do it better the next time?’ ”

And he noted that the current focus on “education reform” — a buzz word in political circles nowadays — is not exactly a new trend.

“I taught carpentry in the 1970s at the height of the desegregation of the Boston schools. Since the first day I taught … the narrative has been about school reform.”

And through the many phases of his career over the past four decades — which has included profiles in Forbes Magazine, an appearance on “Oprah” and other high-profile recognitions — Rosenstock said his focus has remained rooted in much the same place.

“School formation and reformation has always been interesting to me,” he said.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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