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Deep thoughts on a long plane ride towards NAIS...

Hello all NAIS conference participants! Did you hear that the first comic book about superman sold this week for a million bucks... and the original price was 10 cents? Maybe we should all save our conference programs!

Seriously though, and along the lines of the conference theme, who are the superheroes in your school, and what are their super powers? In every school I've seen, there are heroic acts of teaching. And* sometimes there are villains. So post a reply here about your super-people (or your villains.) Here's mine...

One of my first teaching experiences was in a kindergarten as an assistant to a wonderfully creative teacher named Claire. In her room (which was one of those portable/trailer classrooms) there were six or seven activity centers which the children would choose from each morning. These included a puppet theater, dress-up trunk, workbench (with real tools), sand table, arts table, and book corner. Every child in that room was enthusiastic about his or her chosen activity. The half-day would progress with puppet shows and plays, artwork, reading, and woodshop displays. Claire is my super hero. When I walk around kindergartens in other schools and see rows or clusters of desks with children studiously doing paperwork (and not quite understanding why they have to stay at their desk), it makes me long to be back in Claire's room.

Now that I have a daughter of my own I feel much more personally invested in supporting and advocating for a more student-driven and activity-based curriculum. My respect is growing for "alternative" approaches like Waldorf in which children are much more engaged with the natural world, arts, and music than the abstractions of seat-work. Certainly I want my daughter to be a writer, to love reading and to see the beauty of mathematics, but I don't think this is best achieved by sitting at a desk all day. The furniture in our classrooms says a lot about how children spend their time.

I understand the reality of needing to maintain a disciplined approach to classroom management when you have 16-22 students in a room together for six hours. five days a week for 180 days. We are good at creating classrooms where students feel accepted and occupy their time. But I feel like we are accepting mediocrity as the price we have to pay for acceptable classroom management. My question is how do we go from "good to great" with both our expectations and our results. How do we create classrooms in which students' time is not just "occupied", but is passionate? How do we structure activities, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment (taking advantage of children's innate curiousity) in a way which yields greater results? Or do you disagree with this assertion? Do you think our classrooms are full of passion-filled learning? Or perhaps passion-filled classrooms are not our purpose? Maybe it is more about igniting passion for learning within our students, but keeping them on task and on track during the school day?

I think we need to start by looking at how we assess our curriculum. It seems true that "we measure that which we value." And while we often say we value a hands-on, activity-based, differentiated, multiple-intelligences style of education, most of our assessments seem geared towards measuring a standardized level of cerebral and abstract learning. The tests which seem to hold the most weight are standardized ones like the ERB or its older siblings the PSAT and ACT. We are all well-meaning, and never intend for these assessments to drive our curriculum, but I think we have wandered down a path which has removed the passion from too many classrooms. I think we settle. We settle for keeping our kids occupied and our parents happy. Meanwhile, the highlights of the school year that we recount are often project-based: the science fair, the bridge-building, the rainforest unit, the class play, dads' day, butterfly hatching, etc. The problem is that these highlights are often perceived as the "enrichment" or an add-on to a unit of study. Why not build our curriculum around projects like this, rather than treating them as an add-on? What if the assessment was being able to successfully grow a butterfuly rather than being able to spell the word metamorphisis? What if every student were asked to become an expert on a topic of his/her choosing, rather than having all students become mildly familiar with a uniform set of curricular objects. What if students became not just experts, but teachers on their topic? What if part of a student's day was devoted to working on his/her area of expertise? ...perhaps emailing and collaborating with other students and real-world experts from around the country? What would the assessment look like? I suspect it would need to be portfolio-based.

Yes, I want my daughter to know how to multiply and do long division. It's important to me that she can discuss the causes of the civil war and understand the similarities betweent the world's religions. Physics, calculus, modern European history, Shakespeare, and Spanish all figure in her future, but what is most important to me is that she feel truly engaged and happy in her educational pursuits. My fear is that the pendulum of classroom instruction has swung too far towards the abstract. It goes back to that which we measure. If we value passion-filled education, we need to assess for it.

Most of the teachers I know work very very hard to make their classrooms engaging, and to help each and every student learn. My rant here is about the system and the way in which we measure our success. To me, the villain here is accepting "good" because it is so hard to get to "great."

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Digressions?

*with apologies to all of my English teachers who studiously taught me never to begin a sentence with a conjunction, I am now of the school which thinks conversational writing has its place.

Views: 18

Tags: passion, pbl

Comment by Fred Bartels on February 23, 2010 at 4:54pm

Great post. Lots to think about. I do think many of us are having similar thoughts. Wish I knew how to move the discussion forward in a productive way but feel a bit stuck myself.

Comment by Grey Carter on February 23, 2010 at 10:01pm
Enjoyed the read and conversational style. Very deep and identify as a father and educator.

My hero like yours works with younger children. She is a preschool teacher for Metro Nashville gifted program, "Encore". Two of my daughters have experienced her teaching. There is something almost magical about a teacher who can capture the interest of our young children, challenge them, and develop a love of learning and academic exploration.

Looking forward to more posts!
Comment by Dorcas Hand on February 24, 2010 at 11:35am
Golly - if I thought an airplane adventure would get me thinking at such a high level, I might plan more travel! I work with lots of heroes here at school, but yes, we are caught in the maze of need for consistency across a grade level and the need to build from level to level, a consistency fed by our Rubicon map. And we have an assortment of outstanding projects that are yes, the highlight of each year. Much as I would love to move to project based learning, I wonder if anyone could maintain the requisite level of passion all year that is why we remember those big projects. I do agree, tho, that the more we can bring our students' passions to bear on their education, the more enthusiastic they will be about all projects, and about life-long learning which is our ultimate goal.
Comment by Jonathan Martin on February 24, 2010 at 12:06pm
Demetri, this is a great post, and I really appreciate what you have to say. Among other things, I am a "traditional" independent school person myself (Milton Academy, Sidwell Friends, St. Gregory among others) who has chosen recently to send my seven year old to Tucson Waldorf School for many of the reasons you identify.

Measurement-- let's revolutionize what we measure. I don't say we should should toss out SAT and ERB-- I keep them in place, but let's elevate to great prominence the significance of numbers like come from High School Survey of Student Engagement, College and Work REadiness Assessment, from college graduation rates and graduate school attendance rates and how many of our students are accomplishing by graduation a full plate of each school's Demonstrations of Learning, as Pat Bassett wrote recently. From board of trustees to parents to prospects to graduates, let's talk more and more about these stats, and we will drive this bus a different, better direction.

Oh, and, I should add, I am a near-daily blogger who deeply believes in the conversational approach to blog writing!


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