Charly Adler: There’s Always Another Classroom

I heard from an old friend last week who I’ve never actually met in person.  It gave me such a boost, I wanted to share the experience.

About three years ago I wrote a profile piece for Humaneity Magazine.  The piece was about Charly Adler, a life-long educator and provocateur.  I had a couple Skype interview sessions with him, and wrote the article from there.

I really enjoyed talking to Charly, so I’ve kept in touch, sending a couple emails to say “Hello” since that article came out. Charly’s been nice enough to send a friendly note back each time.  Got the latest one today.  He’s still deeply involved in starting new schools under the mantra of Organized Curiosity.  This effort is not limited to schools in the U.S. either;  Europe and the Middle East also provide fertile, welcome ground.  Apparently he made nine trips over the pond last year.

I found a quote attributed to Charly that read, “I believe that education can be defined as ‘organized curiosity.’ I just would like to see an evolution of a more tolerant and curious society.”  That sounds like Charly.

So, here’s the feature article.  Charly Adler is still on the move, making a positive difference in kids’ lives.  Glad that’s the case, and glad he stays in touch from a couple interviews with a guy he’s never actually met.

Originally published December 2012 in Humaneity Magazine, Issue #12

There’s always another classroom — An education provocateur makes a difference by helping others learn

What do Israel, Palestine and Providence, Rhode Island (US) have in common? All have provided Charly Adler , 56, the opportunity to learn, teach and inspire young people to help themselves and make the world a better place.

Originally from the US, Adler has traveled to more than 40 countries in his lifetime, so he knows something about the world around him. Having lived and worked outside the US for 14 years, engaging in various endeavors, in the places just mentioned as well as some others, this self-proclaimed “project junky” is still pursuing the next best chapter in his fascinating life. Why? So as to seek and give inspiration to and from the youth.

You might call him a socially-minded, education provocateur. Because throughout his life, Adler has made a difference by helping others learn. That’s his motivation. Indeed, if you talk to Adler, it won’t take long to see the energy he draws from, and gives back, when connecting with young people, in whom he sees endless possibilities. There is a lot of humor as well. As Charly puts it, “It’s all about finding a way to trigger curiosity, to empower kids, and hopefully to inspire them to ‘do some good’, ya know?”

Adler believes in offering students a path so they can take ownership of their education; bridge the socio-economic divides they face; experience creative, in-depth learning; and develop the skills they need to be successful in the world. Not limited to traditional western/American educational philosophies, Adler seeks environments that align and build on the educational ideas he has worked with and developed throughout his life as an educator.

His background

The son of immigrants from Israel, Adler grew up in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. “Like any good first-generation Jew, I was expected to become a doctor or lawyer. When I graduated I enrolled at the State University of New York Binghamton, which was basically the Ivy League for immigrants at the time.”

Adler’s college studies likely formed his approach as an educator later in life. He studied European history, focusing on the period from 1880 to 1940, following an inter-disciplinary curriculum that included art, literature and architecture. He began     connecting the dots, getting excited about the content, and going deeper into the “why” and the “do” – inspired and eager to learn.

Rather than go to medical or law school after earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1979, Adler found himself taking the road less traveled – what was meant to be a six-month stay in “mysterious Paris” on a scholarship became four years of wandering and working odd jobs in several European countries.

He spent time as a soldier in Gaza in Israel, and even worked on Arab-Israeli relations for none other than Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem for several decades. All these experiences shaped Adler – his beliefs about people, young, old and in-between; and his fresh approach to problem solving and all the associated possibilities of folks trying new things, keeping an open mind, and staying engaged in the world around him.

He was also involved in Operation Moses in northern Israel, which helps bring Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan to escape persecution. Helping bridge the gap for immigrants, one of Adler’s projects was to help establish and run a cultural center in the area.

The children

During his time in Israel, Alder began working with children, which is perhaps how his enthusiasm and focus on young people was born. Hired as a grant writer for the Jerusalem Foundation, he never actually had the chance to write even one proposal. Soon after coming onboard, Mayor Kollek sent Adler to a meeting on Jewish-Palestinian relations.  As Adler explained, “At that meeting, I got on so well with my Palestinian counterpart during that meeting and a couple follow-ups, that they asked me to work on community-relations with Palestinians instead.”

Meant to establish and strengthen relations between the ethnic groups in Jerusalem, these projects often involved Jewish and Palestinian children. “We did treasure hunts and art projects with the kids, and other activities. The idea was to build, a common ground for the kids,” said Adler – in effect, building bridges and friendships between Arabs and Jews.

For Adler, “education is ‘organized curiosity’.” As he puts it, “It’s harder to hate people  you’re interested in, people you’re curious about, those you believe you can learn something from.” Offering great insight into what makes him tick, these simple concepts are the foundation of his philosophy on education.

Shortly after finishing his Masters in Education in 1998, Adler signed on as an advisor at the original Met School ( Providence, Rhode Island. This school would serve as a proving ground for education innovators, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor. Together these two educators created school environments much different from what teens in America have been used to: No chalkboards, textbooks, or lectures. Instead the schools are guided by the basic principle that children learn best by doing meaningful work that engages them.

Adler was part of the team that produced the world’s first graduates of the Met School, which operated (and still does!) on the fundamentals of students taking personal responsibility, more parent involvement and individualised curricula. This tremendous success would spur Adler forward as an education innovator himself.

Considering Adler’s core beliefs about learning and his experience at the Met, it’s no surprise that he spent much of his education career in Big Picture Learning (BPL), the non-profit company that Littky and Washor founded to start the first Met school.

At BPL, he’s held various roles: As advisor, principal and senior education consultant over a 12-year period. During this time, Adler helped transform schools into places where “authentic and relevant learning happens”, as he puts it, “so the kids flush the victim mentality, and so they have a stake and a sense of personal responsibility in their education.” It’s all about empowering students with knowledge so that they can make a better future for themselves.

His next step

Most recently in April of this year, Adler accepted the position as principal at the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. The school represents in many ways the Indian equivalent of BPL, focusing on students in a different way, empowering them and teaching them to be responsible for their learning. Unfortunately, due to visa issues, that assignment came to a sudden end. He returned to the US in September, the quest for his next opportunity as an educator underway.

As Adler continues down his professional path and into his third decade as an educator, he remains excited about the possibilities and is energized by the challenges that lie ahead. For him, the learning will continue, as will inspiring young people to not only improve their knowledge and understanding but to also gain experience, follow their passions, share their enthusiasm.  “I want them to do more than learn, that’s fine, but you’ve got to share what you learn, you’ve got to do good.” No doubt students around Charly Adler will.

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