Alumn Spotlight: Daniel Connelly
Dan Connelly is a man just like you or me. He enjoys motivational kitten posters, gives firm handshakes, and has a lovable yet rambunctious black lab. This same Dan Connelly was also recently nominated for California League of School’s Educator of the Year Award in the fall of 2014.
Connelly graduated from Western Illinois University in 2006. Connelly taught high school English for five years on the south side of Chicago before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area to work at Capuchino High School in 2011. There, he “continues to facilitate and foster individual inquiry and curiosity with humans between the ages of fourteen and sixteen,” in Connelly’s own words.
Below is his speech:
I want to start by thanking those who nominated me for this award, the California League of Schools for this ceremony, and my students for inspiring me over the last 8 years.
So, why am I here? Why are we here?
No, not necessarily ‘why are we nominees for this award,’ although I am curious. But why am I a teacher? What is the purpose of school? Something I remember asking each time I was kicked out of Ms. Bartel’s and Ms. Rosenstein’s classrooms in high school.
Why am I here?
Many of you are probably familiar with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Now, many argue that Plato’s purpose for writing the story was to argue the role of philosophers in society, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s interviewed Plato personally, so I’ll assume it’s safe to interpret this story in a multitude of ways – something that doesn’t always sit well with English teachers.
Plato tells the story of slaves who are chained up in a cave, forced to stare at a wall for their entire lives. Behind them is a fire so that each time a person or animal walks between the slaves and the fire, it casts a shadow on the wall of the cave. For these slaves, this is their entire reality. A reality that has been created for them.
Until one day, a slave is taken out of the cave. He sees an entire world. He realizes that the shadows upon the wall were only fragments of reality. Fragments of truth, created by someone else. He now has a larger scope, larger perspective to inform his own truth. Because of this, he feels the responsibility to return to the cave to inform the other slaves of the world outside. But when he returns, he quickly realizes that the slaves simply cannot understand him. They cannot possibly comprehend what he’s seen because to them, the truth is those shadows on the wall.
Today in third period, Marzzio, a junior who has been listed as a “student of concern” because of his risk for “failing out of high school,” said quite coldly in response to the allegory, “You know, at school, that’s all we’re ever shown is shadows. We’re only shown shadows.”
I could not agree more.
I’ll give you an example. It comes from the beginning of this school year. Like many of you, I spent the last quarter of summer (if not more) revamping and revising my syllabus. I sat, with painstaking precision, choosing effective diction, revising syntax and content. I printed off copies. On the first day of school I distributed them. We reviewed them. We discussed them. I asked them to sign them and return them – an acknowledgment that they accept the expectations of the classroom. Phil, from the back of the room, asked “what happens if I don’t sign it?” Well, why wouldn’t you sign it? I asked. “Because I had no part in making it” he said. And it clicked.
I’m only showing them shadows. I am creating a rubric with my own value systems, philosophy, and imposing it upon these students like a colonizer. They had no opportunity to step out of that cave, evaluate their own reality, truths, values and create something of their own. That syllabus, on day one, serves as a metaphor, the fire set up behind their backs to reflect shadows of my own making on to the wall of the cave. They have no power. They have no control. They have no voice. They have no agency. They only have shadows.
Now, I don’t blame us. I don’t blame myself. I can only reflect and revise my truths as they evolve, but it does make sense why we only project shadows. Because the institution is designed this way. As James Baldwin states in his 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers,” “education is set up to meet the aims of society.” Education takes place within the societal framework. So, it is actually designed to maintain value systems, maintain rules, maintain power structures, and to maintain a status quo. That is the purpose of education.
Now, I’d agree with Marzzio and Phil as they pointed out, real education facilitates in young people the ability to see the world for themselves. To create meaning for themselves. To ask questions. To find answers. To live with those answers. To live with the beautiful discomfort of not knowing.
But society isn’t too anxious to have these kind of people around. And Marzzio and Phil serve as examples of this – their questions and critiques are disruptions, threats to an institution that is designed to simply maintain a status quo. Because what societies ideally want is a citizenry who will simply follow rules and obey orders.
But therein lies the paradox: If we are successful in this, if we only project shadows, if we are successful in imposing our value systems, our structures, and our truths on young people, that is how we as a society will perish.
So, what I need to ask myself is, how am I facilitating young people to step out of that cave, observe the world, and create their own truths instead of insisting that they accept the shadows that I’ve projected or the world that I’ve witnessed outside of that cave?