Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Just Like Students

The first morning back following summer break, the floors still slippery with wax, the smell of cleaning agent clinging to everything, is the morning that we jokingly dread. As soon as it turns August first, we commiserate with our teacher friends that it’s almost time to go back, that we’re not ready, and the summer went too fast. But we’ve all been anticipating this day, the day when the teachers first come back. We’re like our students on this day. We file into the auditorium slowly, more interested in catching up with the colleagues and friends that we haven’t seen during the summer months than with the comments of the morning’s speaker. High school teachers in particular are just like those students that linger, the last to go into the assembly, jockeying for a seat near the rear of the room so they can whisper to friends.

This morning was no different. I stood outside the doors to the high school auditorium with teachers from all the district’s schools gathered to hear the superintendent kick off our year and introduce the morning’s guest speaker, Tony Rotondo, author of Scratch Where it Itches: Confessions of a Public School Teacher. I must admit, I was a little skeptical. Oh no, another speaker. I hope he doesn’t have a PowerPoint presentation about the district’s goals and expectations, our annual yearly progress, and aligning the curriculum with state standards. He didn’t. Instead, Tony infused his message with humor all teachers could relate to – the absurdity of educational acronoyms, shushing strangers in movie theaters, and the everyday irony spilled from the mouths of students. Ultimately, his message of reaching out to the staff and students in our lives was a wonderful start to the new school year. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when he started to read from my entry titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” to the entire teaching staff in my district.

At the point in his speech where Tony was talking about Alfie Kohn’s work, I was nodding along. I have read a great deal on Kohn’s work – from the power and pitfalls of the letter grade to the myth of homework. So imagine my surprise when shortly after talking about Kohn, the morning’s speaker segues into discussing creativity and standards in the classroom and from his mouth booms my name through the microphone. Suddenly, I was a student again. Hey, that’s me he’s taking about! I was being singled out for something I wrote. My words have power. That feeling soon turned to panic as I realized – hey, that’s me he’s talking about. I felt my spine curve as I attempted to sink into the green fabric of the auditorium seat when he started to read part of my blog for the staff of the entire district. Called to the front of the auditorium, I don’t think my eyes left the carpet. Don’t trip. I was a student again. The speaker presented me with a gift (thanks for the portfolio, Mr. Rotondo!) and whispered, “Good luck with Etcetera.” And just like my students, I didn’t really hear what he had to say immediately following the recognition. I was that awkward student all over again, giddy from the recognition and anxious all at once.

The moment reinforced something for me. I need to make sure that my students have this experience, that their words, written or spoken, are recognized and honored for their power. I write today in part because a high school teacher took notice of something I had written and entered me in a local poetry competition (thanks Mr. Dik!). Would I have continued writing essays, poetry, taking creative writing classes had that teacher not recognized my interest in writing? Probably. But without that one teacher’s recognition, I might not have found my confidence or courage to take risks in my writing until much later. Moments like these have meaning and power for students - for everyone. When we are recognized for what we think, what we say, what we write or create, our world changes. We realize a new world of possibilities and understand that what we have created has power. Every student should have that moment. Every student should feel that world of possibility.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Do Schools Kill Creativity?


Sir Ken Robinson argues that we are currently a part of an educational system that perpetuates the stigmatization of mistakes. With the prominence that high stakes tests have in our classrooms, students are less willing to take risks, to go out on a limb and make a mistake. But as Robinson states, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

It’s only twenty minutes long. Give it a watch: Sir Ken Robinson talks on “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

Are we are educating people out of their creativity?

I have a contradictory classroom. The first thing I hand students when they walk into my class is a syllabus that touts the need for creative and critical thinking. We talk about the need to think “outside the box,” to question what they see, what they hear, what they read; students must question how they are educated. One of the lessons I return to throughout the year is the ability to recognize shades of grey, to get out of the dichotomous black vs. white line of thinking. Especially when studying the cultures and literatures of the world, there are no easy answers when it comes to cultural beliefs, values, and ethics.

And then I have to teach them how to take a bubble test, to eliminate the wrong answer and find the right one. It is an important skill for passing the standardized state proficiency tests and achieving a high score on the SATs, which will in turn get them into a better university and potential scholarships. The way our current system is set up, students who know how take objective tests are the ones who succeed.

It is a strange contradiction. Each year I attend multiple meetings, trainings, and conferences on rethinking education to include the whole child. Current educational philosophy is predicated on Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences, that people have a variety of ways of expressing their intelligence whether it is artistically, kinesthetically, musically, logically, etc. Each year we learn about ways to incorporate and highlight these different styles of intelligence in the classroom. Teachers are using differentiated instruction techniques to help children of varying talents and intelligences demonstrate their skills. Educational specialists throw around words like formative assessment, authentic assessment, alternative assessment – all of which are at odds with the objective forms of assessment (state tests and college entrance exams) that students (and teachers) are judged on. As teachers, our educational philosophies are at odds with our nation’s educational mandates.

And our students are caught in between.

As Robinson states, “We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children.” At the very least, our schools are inconsistent – current educational philosophy and practice is at odds with the directives of the No Child Left Behind bill. Is Robinson right, do our schools kill creativity?

Thanks to Eric at Sicheii Yazhi for pointing me to the piece by Sir Ken Robinson.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Art of Revision

Revision is perhaps the most difficult part of writing. Not long ago, I head author James McBride talk about crafting his memoir The Color of Water, and he said it rather eloquently: "Writing is rewriting." It is not necessarily getting the ideas first onto the blank white page, although there are days that I struggle with that as well, but the letting go of words, phrases, and images. Revising is a process of not simply refining one's ideas, but also letting some ideas go.

The process of writing is different for everyone. With the blank page staring me down, daring me to write, I usually find it very easy to get my initial ideas onto the page. It is a sort of purging. But once that momentum slows to a molasses drip, I deliberate over every word, the placement of every piece of punctuation. I start the process of revision midway through my writing as a way to figure out what it is that I am trying to say. My poetry course a few weeks ago highlighted how painful the revision process can be.

Each day we were given a prompt and about an hour and a half to craft a poem. There were mornings when the ideas came spilling out. On the first day when we were told to write a piece about family, my pen was to the paper before the teacher had finished explaining the prompt. As I scribbled my ideas on the blank page, I would periodically stop to scratch out unnecessary prepositions and articles, draw arrows to move lines to different stanzas. Each time I got to what I thought was the end of the poem, I would start over by recopying the poem onto a clean page, beginning the process all over again, scratching out and moving some more. I went through about eight revisions before I got the poem to a working first draft. Each line scratched out of the poem about a family member, my grandma, was hard to let go. Especially in poetry, where each word counts, revision can be a painful process of letting go.

As my professor conferenced with me over my poetry, suggesting revision ideas and lines to get rid of, I was able to empathize with my students. For emerging writers, especially when they are writing about something personally significant, it can be difficult to revise and scratch out clunky sentences and phrases if those words have emotional weight for the student. Students are much more comfortable, as all writers are, with editing their work. Editing the misplaced commas and misspelled words is easy. If we think of writing like building a house, when we edit the mechanical and grammatical problems of a piece, we change the curtains to make sure they match the d├ęcor. When we revise, we change the foundation, a much more labor intensive project. Editing is not the real work of writing. As James McBride said, “Writing is rewriting.” So I must find better ways to engage my students in the work of writing.