Leave it to the English teacher to have an entire blog post just to set-up the motivation of what my final make is…
Two weeks ago, Lizzy wrote a post that hit me at just the right time (check it out). I was searching for my final make and frustrated since it’s that time of year when school becomes centralized around the approaching Keystones (that trend seems to creep in more and more every year).
I connected when Lizzy vented that “today made me really question what I’m doing. Not because I don’t see the value in learning Algebra I, but because I don’t see the value in making learning Algebra I into a race that ends at a disappointing standardized test finish line.”
The teaching world we have inherited seems to be stressful (and frustrating) for all for the wrong reasons… Unfortunately, Lizzy is simply echoing a frustration you can hear from teachers all over the country, in all grade levels, and all subjects (unless the subject has been reduced or eliminated to make way). Of course, we’re also examining inequity. It’s only certain schools that have to stress and pressure for performance on the tests. This creates the paradox that I’m attempting to chip away at in my writing today (though smarter people have already captured this idea far better than I will in my attempt).
At any rate, shortly after reading Lizzy’s blog post, I sat at my desk grading and planning on another Sunday after an especially stressful week of school (and professional developments centered around test prep). The weather was amazing and the windows were flung open to let Spring rush in. My neighbors have had one of their sons practicing the tuba starting at around 11 a.m. every Sunday for the last year. They’re really great neighbors and the practice is always done at a respectable time; nonetheless, the wheels started turning in my head.
The professional developments were all about preparing students for the upcoming Keystones. The speaker was knowledgeable and there were some good tips offered but she was also insistent on some points that go against the very core of my teaching philosophy. The biggest thorn in my teaching soul was hearing that a student’s opinion doesn’t count and that we as teachers should not be asking these sorts of questions since they have no value for the test. I teach in a school where the biggest battle with some of my students is motivation. It’s creating buy-in. This is challenging day-to-day in my classroom but can feel almost impossible when it comes to motivating for a state test. The speaker for our PD missed this point. The nature of high stakes testing not only misses this point but actively detracts from it. The tests are just supposed to be measuring progress, but instead they’re diminishing the very progress they are trying to measure. How many schools and teachers have yielded to the testing behemoth and surrendered their classes and how many kids have been lost as collateral damage? At a time when teaching should be striving to be innovative and encouraging creativity and critical thinking it’s becoming drill for the test, drill for the test, kids tuning out and kids who are stressed. Rote skills have their place but they should not be replacing. Teachers should be using data to inform decisions but there is also an art to the profession that is being sanctioned out of it.
And with thoughts like these churning in my subconscious while I planned lessons, there was that tuba squeak resonating in my ear. I understand how music training works. You must sit and practice and practice and that process is far less glamorous than it’s made out to be. Learning is like that at times too (and those Disney movies always skip that part). Perhaps my neighbor will stick with it and loves playing that tuba. But after a year of playing, I still don’t hear any joy. It sounded like it’s just being done to go through the motions, like it’s something that must be done and checked off a box.
I want my kids to be engaged and interested. That doesn’t happen when the end game is to pass a test. I want real learning, not something dressed up as learning masquerading around in the classroom. I want kids to have passion for what they’re doing. I want to foster their creativity. To encourage them to take risks. To help them find meaning and to care. In writing, there is a quality called duende that also fits here. It’s not easily defined or captured but it’s essentially authentic passion and inspiration. It’s like B.B. King closing his eyes and going to another place during a performance. (I like the Muddy Waters’ version of this song better though).
I know that school can’t be like this all of the time, but it needs to be a part of it. This idea is also what Shots of Awe is talking about here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXwLsba2TOY
And another Shots of Awe actually cites Ken Robinson too and mentions the role of school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOVmVMJEhg8
This all connects to my final make: that tuba, the professional development, the great quandary of our generation and teaching to a test.
Motivation. Buy-in. Relevance. Connection.
This is essentially what Lizzy was writing about and this is also what Precious Knowledge excels in.
I think of what I read in college and what I read now. I would have had no interest as a high school student in them. We must scaffold, but a kid doesn’t want to build with you if they don’t connect, if they don’t care. That’s the challenge and that’s what’s going ignored. There’s no value in student opinion and what they think? That’s what helped me become engaged in literature in the first place. I connected. From there, great things are bound to happen. Yet that’s the quintessential piece that’s all too often severed.
Precious Knowledge focuses on the ethnic studies classes that were banned in Arizona. The classes boasted reducing the dropout rate (and did so much more). For Mexican-American students in Arizona there is a 50% dropout rate. For students who took the classes there was a 93% graduation rate. What’s more, the classes were about critical thinking and empowerment.
My make is an inclusion of Precious Knowledge into my curriculum this year.
It’s also designed in a way that it will continue to grow in the coming years. There is a handout that will help to provide context for the documentary and hopefully help to facilitate deep thinking on the topic. One of the strengths of the classes in the documentary is the college style discussion that takes place. This is something that I’ve always strived for in my classes too. There won’t be a way to measure this but this is the real purpose of the make: the discussion it will hopefully generate.
· We’ll look at social justice issues.
· We’ll talk about propaganda (the curriculum in the documentary is accused of being anti-American and one opponent even claims she feels it’s orchestrated by Mexico and meant to overthrew the U.S. government – no seriously).
· We’ll debate issues classes in the documentary faced.
· We’ll discuss how court cases work and look at the progress of the appeals process that’s still in the works (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tonydiaz/the-house-on-mango-street-goes-to-trial_b_6391022.html ).
· We’ll examine bias and censorship through book banning and modern examples (http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/us/oklahoma-ap-history/ & http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/04/10/461402/teen-pregnancy-sex-education/ )
Each quarter has a project that accompanies it at my school. I often offer options based off of what we’re studying. For this quarter, for the first time, the students will generate the choices. I will have guidelines for the goals of the project but each student will meet with me to plan their own (and groups are encouraged for this assignment but not required). I will also have suggestions to help brainstorming get started. One of those suggestions is for students to group together to make their own short documentary (next year I’ll need to start this earlier to help it function better).
One of my goals this year (going into next year) is to offer more choice in my classroom whenever possible (the thought/goal being that this encourages students to connect and engage in what they’re studying). One of those ideas is to find a way to set-up my classroom for this unit next year to have numerous documentary choices. In my head I’m thinking I can reserve a laptop cart and have different stations in the room for groups to view their selected documentary. Students would pick what they want to view and if it works, I can continue to add options every year. I still think it’s important to provide context for what students are watching beforehand and have it set-up in a way that the reflection afterwards is meaningful which is why it’s nice to have a stable of choices already at my disposal with content already planned.
I guess a lot of the components of my make can’t be reported yet but I’ll update once we start digging into the documentary in a few weeks. Lizzy was discussing field trips in her post, and while that’s important, her words also fit for what I have in mind: "It is so vital for kids to travel outside of their comfort zone and experience the world… One of the most academic advantages we can give students lies in exposing them to this world.“
I’ll close with a favorite quote of mine on this topic: