Sunday, October 19, 2008

Time is of the Essence: "Our Students are Showing Up Tomorrow"

Sir Ken Robinson, author of the must-read Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative and advocate for arts and sciences education that is inclusive, expansive, and collaborative, presents compelling arguments against standardized testing and for programs that encourage creative, imaginative, and innovative thinking.

I met him last week at the Regional Arts Collaborative, held near Pittsburgh. It was delight to meet a man knighted for his leadership of a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK government bringing together leading business people, scientists, artists and educators.
Now living in America, Robinson points out that No Child Left Behind, with its regimen of assessments and funding "amounts to leaving millions of children behind" and kills their creativity, while demoralizing and stigmatizing students, educators, and whole learning communities.
He calls this crisis, "a scandalous misuse of human resources," at a time when we need to encourage performative skills in our children more than ever. When, as Sir Ken notes, "a college degree is not a passport, but a visa" to success in a future that we can't predict,it is absurd that educators and students must contend with standardized testing that narrows curriculum to traditional reading, writing, math and science. These subjects are certainly important, yet with high-stakes testing placing incredible emphasis on children being able to demonstrate knowledge that fits into bubble sheets, we see critical thinking, collaborative skills, technology applications, and aesthetic capabilities being pushed out of curriculum.
Sir Ken notes a waste of the most important resource our unsteady economy needs most--human potential, which can be realized in creative, performative pursuits in the arts and sciences. Furthermore, dichotomy arts and sciences is not only artificial but also--and more dangerous--obsolete in this new century. I agree that such tests do more to limit students abilities and potential for learning, while at the same time have the effect of making school irrelevant to our students.
The emphasis for the sort of education Sir Ken calls for, schooling that involves high level applications authentic work in arts and sciences, and that involves collaboration, creativity, problem solving, performance, would produce a relevance and rigor to develop active intelligence and cognitive development that are missing in our schools and needed for our future.
In good measure time and energy of teachers and students are being misfocused on a very limited skill and knowledge set that won't serve our futures. So call your representative? Wait out the upcoming election? No way, says Sir Ken. Legislation of recall or reform will take years. And he flatly points out that this can't wait: "Our students are showing up tomorrow."
We educators are the ones that must work to ensure our curricula are preparing our students for economic, cultural, and personal success. Sir Ken presents a rallying cry in his book and his presentations around the world. He reminds us that sustainable "human organizations are organic not systemic." The time has come--as always has been the case--for the centrality of teachers in educational reform. Curriculum design and assessement design cannot match the wit of teachers to make our schools relevant and rigorous for our students.
Sir Ken's knightly call for educational transformation reminds me of Postman and Weingartner's a generation ago. Effective teachers know of Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Some educational ideas are always right for the practice.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Essences of Teaching: No. 4: Summoning Our Courage

Fourth in a Series of Three . . . or More

(Review Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

If I may add a fourth "S' along with storytelling, scholarship, and sharing, I would add the essential of summoning our courage to face and meet the challenges of our profession. Unlike random heroes of a dramatic moment, a time of peril or personal tragedy, people whom we hail as "hero" when faced by a non-negotiable situation of extreme circumstance, teachers must summon courage each and every day, with each and every classroom, and with each and every child. Our heroism comes from a steadfast vision of what should be the case, of what future we imagine, and what we know children can do, think and learn.Many Challenges

We must summon our courage inside and outside the classroom. To address the struggles of students can be daunting. Whether our students have learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional problems, drug addictions, English as a second language, or are bullied for sexual orientation, religion, or minority ethnicity--the sheer number of variables of what calls a teacher to intervene can make it tempting to "let that one slide." Yet we teachers know if they "let that one slide," then we've let a child slip through the cracks, and so rather great teachers take stands against mediocrity, make eddies in the river of complacency, place roadblocks to bullying and defamation, and shake off the hindrances to learning. As we do so we become exemplars of resiliency and accomplishment – the true sources of self-esteem for ourselves and our students.

A Tsunami of Technology

A great challenge is presented by incredible increase of technology that is reshaping the way students think and learn and therefore demanding we change the way teach. We must summon our courage, for this is not a pedagogical trend or a wave to ride out, it is a tsunami of technology and it is cresting above our heads. To survive, our communities must embrace the use of technology and support its funding. Teachers must be given training support and make every opportunity to learn and work with new and emerging technologies on an on-going basis. "Our schools are going to change more in the next ten years than they have in the last hundred. Everyone reading these words will be part of that change. Get ready." So says James Daly, editor of Edutopia magazine. Summon your courage.

Standardized Tests

With George Orwellian flair of a name and Aldous Huxley's dystopian vision of education, the No Child Left Behind Act has ushered in Big Brother's Brave New World version of teaching and learning—every student to turn out like the next by 2014. Its euphemistic name makes it difficult to argue against its substance, for no teacher, no legislator, no community member would not be in favor of the phrase. But as professionals of in the field, experts in pedagogy, we know a name is a name is a name and that the current plan in practice does not smell like a rose. Standardized tests encourage cookie-cutter curricula that are limited in scope, purpose, and utility, while our students are unlimited in needs, potential, and talent.

Standardized tests, as they are now, with high-stakes emphasis and heavy penalties and few educational rewards are stifling our learning communities while offering little in the way of inquiry, relevance, or the future.

Since standardized tests have been introduced in the 1990s in Pennsylvania, one by one,--writing, then reading and math, now science, and with more proposed on the way--we know the Class of 2009 has sat in a class from Kindergarten to Twelfth Grade preparing for and taking and retaking government mandated standardized tests for at least 180 days. One whole year of their public schooling spent on a standardized testing. A whole year!

Standardized testing by definition negates variables of divergent thinking and innovation. Standardized testing by definition negates the uniqueness of our students, their differentiated abilities, and their varietal talents. Standardized testing by definition negates the ingenuity of our teachers, their ability to develop relevant curriculum, and their professional talents to deliver instruction in meaningful, learning activities and provide real-world assessments. The more we use standardized tests to measure student ability, the less our schools are empowered to offer students opportunities to show their true achievement. Each year that a school meets Annual Yearly Progress of testing, is a milestone of that school's curriculum's regress toward becoming irrelevant.

Such milestones become tombstones to the kind of student performance our state and our nation country needs in order to compete in a global marketplace, a marketplace in which the successes will be built upon creativity as much as productivity, upon designing as much as performing, and upon collaboration as much as invention. When have you seen a standardized test that calls students to be creative, to design, and to collaborate? They don't exist. We must, as Robinson says, be "out of our minds" if we think standardized tests are the measure of whether we have left a child behind. The tests themselves leave children behind.

Thus, we must summon our courage. We teachers must resolve to replace testing with authentic assessments that mean learning for students and accountability for educators.We must summon our stories and our scholarship--what we as professionals know to be true from research and in the life of a classroom and in the life of each child.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

When It Comes to Blogging with Students Process is King

This week, working on blogging and podcasting with students for whom these are new experiences, has taught me just about as much about the process of online writing and producing as they are learning about having an authentic audience, considering self-representation, and getting the I's capitalized and the periods inside the quotes.

The assignments are part of our response to a school visit to Life on Mars, the 55th Carnegie International, hosted by Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. And to-date, we've only just begun with some initial impressions, with plans for more expository, narrative and poetic compositions to follow in the days ahead.

Online writing and podcasting on the fly is not only teaching our students to ply their compositional talents with care for their audiences, but also presenting lessons in process.

You know, I came of age in this profession when "process writing" was being defined, so I guess I should not be surprised to find that emerging venues for writing bring this point home, albeit in new ways. As students conceptualize where their words are fitting into audio files, posted in to blog spaces, they are simultaneously reflecting on and contextualizing their compositions with meta-writing. Figuring out clicks, copy-and-pastes, URLS, hyperlinks, and insert-image buttons all the while creating instantly published works in 42 minutes or less leaves little time for reflection for the moment, but I try to have my students pause and consider the importance of their voices and their choices for what they will post.

The process takes care of itself. But I wonder if it isn't even more important.