Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Core Beliefs: 2

What does it mean when students talk about graduating from college and entering "the real world?" Where exactly have they been living all these years? Where have they picked up the notion that what goes on in the early years of their lives is somehow un-real or un-important, less relevant or less significant than what will be going on at some time in the indefinite future? It's true that because they are still young they are shielded from some of the worries and responsibilities of adulthood. But it's also true that an hour in the life of a child is no less real and no less valuable than an hour in the life of an elderly person. An hour is an hour is an hour.

I think that as parents and teachers we make a mistake when we act in ways that confirm our children and our students in their assumption that life doesn't really begin until you get to the real world, and that what they are doing in school is therefore not really significant, but merely a kind of rehearsal or preparation for real life. So that's core belief number two: Students already live in the real world. The challenge that presents to me as a teacher is to help students find ways to connect what they are doing in school with the things that they do really care about, and that are central to their sense of who they are as individuals right now. If what we are doing in the English class does not connect with or help the students to understand better the lives they are living right now, then we are all wasting a tremendous amount of time. I think it's critical that we invite the students to bring their worlds, the ones they live in right now, into the classroom.

Several years ago Everett Kline came to my school to talk about authentic assessment. He challenged us to think about ways of organizing our end-of-semester assessments (which for most of us meant either exams or papers) that would give the students the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise by doing something that mattered to them. I decided to try his ideas out by turning some time over to my second-semester sophomore students to do allow them to work on independent projects of their own design. I gave them about six weeks to work on the projects. I cut back on the other work I was assigning them, and I gave them time in class - a total of about ten hours - to work on their projects and meet with me in conference about them. The only two constraints I put on the assignment were that it should represent the best work the students thought they could do at this point it time, and that it should link to something they really care about. I also asked them to hand in a reflection paper in which they would talk about the process they went through, what they think they did well, what they enjoyed or had trouble with and what they would do differently if they were starting over.

The first year I did this, out of sixty sophomore students there were about five who did what I considered to be a terrific job. But, in one of the moves that looks really good only in retrospect, I asked those five students if I could keep their projects to show to the next year's students. (I asked those who wanted to keep them for permission to photocopy them.) The following year, I showed the students in my classes the previous year's projects. The second year I wound up with 15 or 20 first-rate projects, and I held onto those as well. Many of the students invested substantially more time and effort on the projects that I could have reasonably expected them to do if I were simply assigning them work of my own choosing.

Over the last five years I've continued with the sophomore independent projects, and I've been amazed at the results. Students have written collections of short stories and poems. They've written novels. They've done autobiographies and family histories and ethnographic research. They've done documentary videos, like this student's documentary on World of Warcraft. They've made physical objects and documented the process: surfboards, Hawaiian drums, necklaces, pottery, hand-crafted computer cabinetry. They have been able to apply the thinking and writing and problem-solving skills we've worked on during the year to the lives they are already living. Now I've got an archive of perhaps 100 terrific project (I'm strategizing now about how to make more than the small sample in the link above online available online) and the proportion of students each year who are come up with projects at least as good is up around 80%.

In an earlier post I talked about my belief that when we put too many constraints on what students write, we actually make it harder for them to write well. The same might be said about teaching in general. The teaching activities with which I have had the most success, the ones which I felt best about and which have allowed the students to do the best work, have by and large been the ones where I essentially set up a framework and then got out of the way. Most students are more capable than they think they are, and more capable than WE think they are. Donald Murray at the Univerisity of New Hampshire used to say "I'm going to underteach so my students can overlearn." In the context of everything I've just been saying, that makes complete sense to me.

And one might take this set of ideas one step further, from the pragmatic to the programmatic. What would a school look like that started from the set of assumptions we've been discussing? Norman Kolb has an interesting essay that was published in Independent School in the spring of 2006. It's called "A Map to the Future," and it begins like this:

What memorabilia do you still have from your school years? I remember having several cartons of the stuff—report cards, book reports, science projects—that at one time or another were important enough to save. But then, as the years went by, first one carton and then another and another somehow disappeared. In the end, the only survivor of all those years was a map of Long Island Sound I drew as a senior in a high school cartography course.

Why has this one artifact managed to survive all of the packing and unpacking I've done in moving through college and then from apartments to houses in three states on two coasts? The answer is probably the most prosaic one—the map, quite by accident, simply happened to make it through four decades of purges. Even so, I prefer to think that the map refused to be discarded because it represents an important moment in my educational biography: possibly the only time in high school that a teacher encourage me to work on something I actually wanted to do, something other than the required curriculum.

Kolb goes on to talk about his vision of what an education might be as opposed to what it too often is. He elaborates on his vision of education in the year 2016:

The school of 2016 should give students as many opportunities as possible to be knowledge workers. These opportunities include offering electives that are suggested and possibly even designed and taught by students; scheduling interim programs that encourage students to explore topics of their own choosing (and, ideally, without being graded); encouraging mentoring relationships that take students beyond the school's physical and programmatic boundaries; carrying out sustained problem-based explorations; promoting travel-study opportunities, and requiring that students plan and conduct substantial independent projects during the junior and senior years.

In other words, let's recognize that the lives the students have are the ones they are living now. And let's find a way to make what goes on in the classroom draw upon and enrich those lives.

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