Monday, September 1, 2008

A Case for Creativity

More and more, of late, I am finding myself face to face with what some may brand an irrational fear. I am back in my traditionally calendared school and working hard to connect with my students so that we might begin our forward progress. As we work though, I find myself regularly drifting to an idea that began with Ken Robinson. Creativity, in schools... is dying. Worse than this... that I might be assisting in killing it.

I hear it in conversations with colleagues. Here is a statement made by a parent to a kindergarten teacher at my school on meet the teacher day:
“My son knows how to write already. When you do drawings in class, will he be forced to draw also?”

I read about it in articles that discuss the newest educational offering from our federal government proposing a series of formalized assessments, so that we might better gauge our K-2 students. A ninety minute test for a six year old.

I see it in my new eight and nine year olds, 25 of them altogether, who are afraid to make drawings, already having branded themselves as not being artists. Children who already have a deep seated fear of failure which hides their hands from sharing, for fear of making a dreaded mistake.

I think about how much of my year is spent coaxing my students out of themselves. Showing them that they are in a safe place, a space where mistakes are ok, a place where failure can become greatness.

I see it at our first faculty meeting, which has to have some portion of our time devoted to reviewing the data from our End of Grade test scores. And what does the data show us this year? Well we did not make high growth. Excuses, most actually legitimate, roll out. What might have caused this? What can we do to rectify this? Educators already racking their brains for where a change might be made.

Most often, to me, it seems like the change begins by cutting something in order that more time might be devoted to assessing progress towards the EOG, or so that more time might be spent in preparation for the EOG. Of course there is always the small voice in the crowd, frequently an administrator, who says that if we stick to the standard course of study, and teach the curriculum, then our students will be properly prepared.

The truth is that it would be an injustice not to prepare a student for the intricacies of a formalized assessment. Preparation for anything requires practice, and practice forces a devotion of time. My fear is that more and more of us aren’t meeting what are becoming impossible standards, and as a result more and more of us are cutting back on the creative things that we have done in our classrooms.

Creativity, in our country, has, and will continue to be one of our most valuable natural resources. During the past century we have mined untold amounts of creative thinking and the benefits have been clear. However, much like our oil, our creativity depletion has become frightening. We are systemically instilling a fear of failure into our youth which has debilitated their own most powerful resource. We must invite, encourage, celebrate creativity in our classrooms. Is there any way to revert ourselves away from this road that is rapidly driving us away from it?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Revolution

A great friend of mine recently asked me to espouse what my intentions were for my revolution in education. The following are the excerpts from the email that I sent back to him:

As far as the revolution goes, I generally find myself bogged down. When I left Asheville I was all ready to start a radical movement that involved both teachers and parents. I thought that we could start with discussions about what we thought was wrong. Ultimately I felt like we needed to boycott the end of grade testing. I feel like if the parents truly understand the realities of what the test is doing to our kids, they'll easily agree to band together to say no. If the parents boycott, then the teachers wouldn't have to be concerned about their livelihoods.

So I came to Raleigh fired up. Then I started at a gifted and talented magnet school, a school who, for most of the years past have easily jumped through the hoops set forth by No Child Left Behind. The faculty was happy, parents overly supportive, and they seemed to be doing everything right. It opened my eyes. I thought, perhaps I need to have some more experience within the educational system, before I can reasonably rail against it. Two years later and in many ways I am back where I was. Something's got to give.

As of this point it looks like the give is going to come from me. I feel like a flea circling an elephant trying to figure out how to get it to move. Most of the teachers, and parents for that matter, see the problem, but in the same breath, most feel like the problem is just too much for one person or even a small group to tackle. Most actually feel like it will be better just to wait until the pendulum swings. Even I have become intimidated by the mammoth. I have worked within my school to cultivate the kind of conversations that I think would be necessary to foster a movement. Towards the end of the year we had a book club, but our discussions, I felt were cyclical and ultimately only scratching the surface. In the meantime I look at my wife finishing her degree in architecture, and feel like that is where I am meant to be. I haven't actually faced the facts about whether or not I am copping out, though I know that reality is looming.

I'll stop dancing around. Here is what I envision for a revolution in education, for what it's worth. Parents will need to be educated, by teachers, to the true realities of what is going on in the educational realm. We have to get them to recognize the effect that all of this testing is having on our children. Essentially we are creating a generation of individuals who work only for reward. The reward is a number. The number, in reality means nothing to the majority of individuals involved. Frequently I ponder, laughingly, how many of my students will take their EOG score and use it as a means for entry into college? Who benefits from the information we take away from the numbers produced by an EOG. I find that kids have become complacent, in that they work, more and more, solely to achieve a number that they have been told will give them worth. Even within the minimal confines of the classroom, students have become a group who tend to care mainly about the minimal that should be accomplished to achieve the passing grade. We are losing pride. We are losing self motivation. We have set a bar that most students can get over with reasonable ease, and because there is only reward for getting over the bar, that has become all most students are willing to do. The truth is why should they do more?

Now, because of the nature of the EOG, and because of the great fear of failure that permeates our culture, the majority of teachers and administrators have begun to do what most of us say that we won't do. We are teaching to the test. Many teachers agree that if we teach the curriculum that our state has selected, throughout the year, then our students should be prepared for the test. You hear as much in many of the educational circles. "As long as we are teaching what we should be teaching, then our students will be fine." Even I have bought into this mindset. But the reality is that more and more of us are gearing our regular daily instruction subtly towards preparing for a test. This has to stop.

This is working to foster a generation of underachievers. This is contriving to create a generation who are not interested in learning because they hunger for knowledge, but because they need to show seven points of growth in a given year. This creates a generation that looks at their education and can't see their stake. Why should anyone be expected to invest in something where the profits are hidden beneath statistics that even the educated adults will struggle to interpret?

Additionally, if I am considered to be highly qualified at my job, then why am I not trusted to represent the outcomes of what my students do? I spend 180 days with my children, and come to know them better than most, and yet my interpretation of what they are capable of has minimal bearing of what they have accomplished in a year. It has to change.

The testing must end. The classrooms must be given back to the teachers. We have to get away from a system that is so narrow in our understanding of academic ability. Change should not be only in small pockets, i.e. charter schools. We have to recognize that we are pushing the most highly qualified individuals away, by creating an standard that is impossible to achieve. Change must be across the board. This is why I see a revolution. It seems to be the only reasonable answer. Break it down completely, so that we might build it up correctly into what it should be.

What is a correct educational system? I will be honest in saying that I don't have that answer. I do, however, feel up to the task of having that conversation. I feel capable of bringing much to the table for the founding of a new beginning. I am ready to be on the board of revolutionaries.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Swimming Upstream

Well I emerge from the End of Grade testing week mostly unscathed. Of course, we sent home the letters for students that need to re-test on Friday, so perhaps there may yet be some scathing. I find that I wrestle each year with how to interpret my results. Notice that I refer to them as my results.

In my heart of hearts I would like to think that my students EOG scores are just one small component of a year end review. That, while they do generally offer some direction in areas for improvement, they are only a small part of my regular and ongoing reflective practices when it comes to my teaching.

I refer to the scores as my scores because ultimately I am the only one who is truly a benefactor of the outcome of the test. Sure it may be psychologically and subliminally affecting our children, and yes it may even hold some of my students back, but the scores I received on Friday will not, ultimately, be a factor in my students future admission to a four year college. They will not post these scores on their resume. Most of them will not even remember them beyond June 9.

And so I come back to my ongoing inner debate. What do my scores mean to me. Before I go on, let me lay them out, so that you might see where I am coming from. I will start with my writing test scores, a bear for most North Carolina fourth graders. I had twenty three students when the writing test was administered back in March. (Currently I have twenty four.) Of those twenty three, seven did not pass, many barely missing the score of three with eleven points (Twelve points make a three.) Ten students passed with a grade level standard of three, essentially what would be considered by most to be average. Six scored a level four which, not boasting, is generally a pretty difficult bar to clear. Last year my writing scores were essentially the same except I had no students score a level four. I still had seven who didn’t pass.

My EOG test results are for twenty four students. I inherited a new student around the beginning of the last nine weeks. These numbers allow for more rigorous analysis, though they are confined to only the math test scores as our reading test this year was a field test. Four of my students did not pass the math EOG. Two of those students scored twos on the test and two scored a one. Nine students scored a three, and ten of my students scored a four. My average growth for each student which is arrived at by taking their scale score from last year and subtracting it from this year was about five points. I believe that six points is considered to be high growth.

How many of you have I lost?

There are many who would argue that these scores validate what I have done as a teacher for this school year. I think that herein lies my greatest fear. While these scores do validate what I have have done this year as an educator, at the same time offering me some direction with regards to where I can improve, they miss so much more. While numbers are concrete, and many would say indisputable, there are not measures for so many of the powerfully influential lessons that I hope and pray that I have imparted on my students. Here are just a few...
Don’t make excuses, own it. Re-evaluate expectations daily... hourly. You can be a great writer... seriously. Truth can be your strongest commodity when promoting self. Being a good sport can yield greater victories than winning the game... seriously. You can be an actor, an artist, a musician.

I have poured all that I could into fragile nine and ten year old self esteems. (They really are surprisingly fragile.)

You too can have a voice that can be heard by a powerful many. A love of reading can be a great thing... seriously. Don’t sell yourself short with laziness.

We’ve talked politics. We’ve talked about the serious situation that faces our planet. We talked about Tibet. We talked about poverty and thought about solutions. Money is not a solution. Food is not a solution. We have continued to practice the fine art of sharing. Sharing of space, sharing of objects, sharing ourselves. We have learned that when you are on stage that actors never have to be embarrassed. We practiced engineering and architecture. We studied art. We studied poetry. We wrote songs... about multiplication... and actually enjoyed it. We leaned that teachers can be wrong... seriously. We practiced letter writing, knowing that it is a dying art. We learned that cursive handwriting is a personal gesture that means a lot to some people. We learned about the power of the internet, about connectivity, blogging, wikiing. That our world is rapidly shrinking and speeding up, in a dizzying manner. I could go on and on...

Ultimately, it is my hope that my students take from my class one lesson. I myself have borrowed the words from a colleague:

Be bold, not perfect.

Simple, no? How could any standardized assessment ever measure that? I think that what frightens me the most is that so many teachers who impart similar lessons are losing the opportunity to share, and in their stead training our kids meet a narrow set of standards.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Poor Little Ones

“I sit in my middle-school classroom, and the teacher wants us to say good-bye to childhood. I feel at a loss. Happiness is like the twinkling stars suffusing the night sky of childhood. I want only more and more stars. I don't want to see the dawn.”
--Zhou (Bella) Jiaying

I spent, what felt like much of last week, working my way through the recent National Geographic article by Leslie T. Chang. It was really something that caught my attention, but as many of my fellow teachers are aware EOG’s are looming, sapping many teachers of their deep well of energy.

The article spoke of the huge emerging middle class in China and followed one little girl on her path through their education system. It amazed me the similarities between her education and the education that many of our children are headed towards.

I have had several interesting discussions with colleagues this past week about a recent decision by our county to allow kindergarten classrooms to invite play back into their space. Blocks are being brought out of storage. Housekeeping spaces are being reinvented for the little ones. I think the thing that baffled me the most was the thought that there had ever been a logical reasoning for taking these things in the first place.

In fact when I was enlightened to the notion that play had ever been removed from the lower grades it began to dawn on me the effect that this has had as the children continue their progression through the various halls of school. My eyes were opened in understanding at why my fourth grade students might have, what they considered to be a reasonable argument, about who is the rightful owner something as simple as a pencil. They have, it would seem, missed the opportunity during their early stages of development to learn appropriate ways to share.

Perhaps some of you may feel that this is a large stretch of my imagination to have jumped to the aforementioned conclusion, but I would ask you to take a moment to reflect on the children that you know. More and more I find myself surprised at the sheltered innocence of our young people.

Is it possible, that in our pursuit of academic excellence, in our push for children to perform earlier and earlier, we might be insulating and incubating a generation of fearful and self-centered individuals? Is it possible that we are not alone in this pursuit? (The National Geographic article really is quite good.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Celebrate the Child

“Mothers will go where their children are being celebrated, every time, in every town, in every city.” Bill Strickland

This past week my school hosted a spring family night. Hot dogs and hamburgers were served along with performances by our jumprope club, our ballroom dancing club, as well as our staff and student choir. The next day our Assistant Principal sent an email to the staff with much praise and high thanks for all of the participation.

My school has a large base population living in public housing right on the outskirts of our city. Frequently it is difficult to attract parents to come to our school, though the trip, for most, would require little more than a short walk across the street. Our AP noted in the email the significant turnout of base parents and I thought of the Bill Strickland quote.

For those of you who don’t know him, Bill Strickland is an innovator who has funded and created his own schools and training centers to help the under served populations of inner city Pittsburg. He has received the MacArthur “Genius” Award for leadership and integrity in the arts, among his many other accolades.

His quote is referring to a gallery that the had opened at his school to celebrate the work of the students. He spoke of the drive to get parents to come to the gallery openings, and how he hired a man to encourage the parents to come. He described how the number of guests at their openings grew with each invitation because mothers will go where their children are celebrated.

Immediately I thought of our school.

I thought of the lengths that my school goes to to encourage our base parents to come for teacher conferences and the inevitable low attendance. I thought of my own frustrations with with parents who do not seem to offer the support that their child so desperately needs. Then I thought about celebrating their child.

I teach the fourth grade, so I wondered how many parent teacher conferences parents may have already been to that did not center around celebration. I wondered about a history of calls from the office that were devoid of celebration. At some point, I imagined, you begin to dread that call, to disdain the invitation, to ignore the school that looms, like a wall across the street. I thought of the conferences that I haven’t had with my base parents, and wondered if there would have been much celebration in the event that they had visited.

Sadly I fear that our results oriented society would not offer much hope for celebration at the parent teacher conference. This concerns me. What concerns me more is that I don’t know that I have to answer for how to provide the platform for celebration. I firmly believe that every child has a gift and talent to be cultivated and drawn forth by, among others, educators. Additionally, I believe that I am working every day to draw the children out of themselves, heads held high with confidence. But I also recognize theirs and their families strong adherence to the standards that our society has set in place. Grades and testing results measure, ultimately the child. While I do believe that there is a need for valid assessment of understanding and capabilities, my concern is that, increasingly, it is at the expense of the child. That, I suppose, is an entirely different blogpost.

Here, I am at an end, though I realize that I have not concluded my thoughts. Ultimately I feel that I am not at a conclusive place. Perhaps one of my three readers out there in cyberspace might have some thoughts on the matter. I just can’t get this notion of celebrating children out of my head.

See Bill Strickland speak here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Industrial Revolution 2.0

More and more I find that the world, along with myself, seems to be coming to grips with the notion that we find ourselves in the midst of what should only be deemed an Industrial Revolution. William McDonough has already spoken of an industrial revolution in terms of the terrible need to change our perspectives about ecological responsibility. Cradle to cradle is his brainchild for radically changing the ways that we think about production and recycling. Within it, he poses a challenge to generate products and structures that are truly recyclable, that have no end life. “The Next Industrial Revolution.”

My vision of our current Industrial Revolution is slightly different, and as I thought back to my grade school understanding of the history of the Industrial Revolution I found the comparison to be extremely interesting. Around the mid 1800’s people in Great Britain and America began migrating away from their farms into the cities where their labor was found to be in great need. There had been a fairly rapid increase in innovation in regards to the technology of manufacture. Factories churned out goods at what seemed to be an alarming rate. The general public, who, for the first time, were accumulating wealth, became consumers and their appetite was discovered to be great. It was, in many ways, a time of huge prosperity and essentially the powerful wind that has brought us forward to the present.

One of the major differences between the first and second Industrial Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in which we currently find ourselves will be the fact that we will be able to study and relate to our own revolution as it happens. The speed with which media is currently produced and consumed will allow us to view multiple different takes on the state of our lives almost immediately. We will analyze and evaluate our direction in much the same way that our cars are being guided remotely via satellite. Previously, people were aware that there were great changes going on right around them, but these individuals did not have an efficient method for contemplating the whirlwind of change that they found themselves drawn up in.

Here we are in the midst of a great whirlwind, and what is amazing, is that we will have the pause to still, at least our own minds, within the turmoil to assess our direction and affect, hopefully, change.

What is frightening is how this will connect with the classrooms of the 21st century. Obviously, technology, similar to mechanization, is going to be the greatest factor in revolutionizing our world as we know it. This past weekend I attended, along with two of my administrators, our counties job fair. The elementary schools of our county hosted around a thousand applicants, in most cases, looking to begin their careers as teachers. I was able to ask one question of our perspective candidates and I elected to center my question around how they might plan to implement technology in the classroom. In general, they struggled with their responses.

Here we are preparing our students for careers that have yet to be conceived of. Preparing the children for a world that is rapidly shrinking. Moving forward into an incredibly exciting time of tremendous innovation and yet it seems that we may be missing the boat.

The average student in their teens has at least three digital devices on their person at any given time. Whether it be a cell phone, an MP3, a laptop, a video game, a GPS, or a simple television. They are interacting on a global scale with multiple individuals socially, economically, and as someone who pursues their own personally developed education plan, and yet in the classroom they are stuck in what might reasonably be called a medieval time.

Many students have a more thorough knowledge of technology than their teachers. For a lot of teachers this is terribly intimidating, let alone the notion of the multiple rapid improvements in technology that are taking place on a daily basis. WE MUST PERSEVERE! We must not be intimidated, and furthermore, those of us who are able to interact within this world of change, must step out of our comfort zones with the intentions of guiding our colleagues into the next Industrial Revolution. We must do this for the sake of our children. We must do this for the sake of our country. We must embrace the future that is here now, and seek to guide our children into this great foggy expanse.

I believe that many will find this, in some sense frightening, for one of the most difficult aspects of being a teacher is allowing oneself to believe that it is ok not to know all the answers. Here we stand in the great whirlwind of change. Don’t miss your opportunity to turn on the switches that will keep our next generation on the precipice of innovation.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Your Daughter is a Dancer

Many of you may be familiar with Sir Ken Robinson and his powerful thoughts about the future of creativity in our world. If you have seen his TED talk, which is a must (Really, see it now if you haven’t.), then you are familiar with the story about the young girl who had trouble sitting still in her class. Her principal called her mother in for a conference and, in a rather eloquent way, informed her that her daughter was a dancer. I’ll try not to spoil it for those of you that haven’t already seen it. Suffice it to say that this week I had one of those moments in my classroom.

Frequently I worry that I might be the major factor in a child’s life that could potentially keep them from pursuing their hearts desire. This year I have had a student, who on more than one occasion has pushed my patience to its edge. She is not at grade level, frequently her attitude pushes other children away from her, her mother has enabled her for fear of hurting or damaging her self esteem, and completing anything, and I mean anything, takes longer than one would think humanly possible.

Today I had a parent bring in a special snack for our class in honor of her daughter’s birthday. One of the young men in my class volunteered to sing happy birthday for her, so I took the liberty of jovially putting him on the spot. It was all in good fun, and inevitably he laughed himself back to his seat in a slight fog of embarrassment. Of course when there is any possibility of limelight, you’ll find that multiple students, frequently ones that you might never have expected, will jump out into the forefront.

As I was weeding them back to their seats several of my students pushed to have my difficult student remain as a standout. In all of the din, I elected, simply, to sit back and see what would come. It was very quiet at first, but then her voice found footing, and I found myself quietly... amazed. Here was power and confidence. Justified confidence bubbling over.

I thought of the multiple conferences that I have had with her mother. All of the interventions and strategies, the hand wringing and frustration, and this child in the midst of it all. Clearly frustrated. Her own patience worn terribly thin because, how long can you be told that you are not doing what you should be doing before you give up. What should be a reasonable expectation for our students when it comes to reflecting on what we have deemed to be their shortcomings. How do you show perseverance to someone who struggles to read the word, or better yet, in this student’s case, refuses to write it for fear that she will inevitably misspell it.

Were it not for the current state of education, I would have called mom, this afternoon to set up a conference. At the conference I would have shown mom, what it is likely that she already knows. “Ma’am, your daughter is a singer. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?”

Sadly I cannot do this.

Though I am sure that mom would be very appreciative of the compliment for her daughter, we live in a world of high stakes expectations. Her mother lives in a world that has told her again and again that, for her daughter to succeed, she must meet a specific set of criteria. For her daughter to succeed, she must expect to attend college. Success will be achieved if her daughter is able to command an assessment that proves something to someone somewhere. There is no measure for creativity. There will be no benchmark that qualifies an individual for college because they can paint an impressive landscape.

And so here I am. Up late at night on a Friday, pondering the notion of my own failures for this child, who I fear is set on a path to failure. Sometimes it makes it difficult to sleep.

* * *

For those of you who are interested, Ken Robinson has a book out currently titled:
Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative
I am currently reading it, and yes, it is as powerful as his talk.

“You say you want a revolution...” -- John Lennon 1968