Wednesday, September 21, 2011

No Imagineering Allowed

If you see this pop up in your RSS browser and wonder what this blog ever was... yeah, my bad. With my change in duties and the ramp-up of our statewide AEA PD Online initiative, blogging has gone beyond luxury to something that is unthinkable at this point.

But today is different. I'm blogging with a bit of anger. Never a good thing.

My oldest daughter entered 6th grade this year, meaning middle school. She is taking on a lot, including Pre-Algebra, Confirmation, and her first job (teaching Tae Kwon Do for Park and Rec). Her busyness has caused a lot of stress for her, which usually results in some deep discussions and a few tears.

So imagine my frustration when the latest issue was because a teacher wouldn't let her be an imagineer.

Okay, background info.  Imagineer = the artistic brains behind designing Disney World attractions and rides.  And the assignment = your run-of-the-mill "pick an occupation that you want to be and copy down facts about it... er, research it".

This assignment of course will be done a dozen times by a student in their school career, probably starting in kindergarten.  Perhaps more, now that we are paying lip service to "employability skills" usually without any comprehensive curricula on fostering them.  I should say, some teachers do this assignment better than others.  Better than this case, for example.

The issues were two-fold.  One, they were only allowed to pick occupations from a book (a "30-year-old" book, my daughter informs me).  Yeah, nothing screams 21st century education like picking antiquated occupations.  And two, they were only allowed to research from that book.  Which isn't research.  You should be banned from ever being able to use the word "research" if this is your idea of it.  One source?  No synthesizing info from a variety of sources?  No evaluation of whether the source is valid or important?  Just simply copying stuff down?

So my daughter, the mercurial one that great teachers will love and average teachers will hate, asks why she can't do Imagineering.  Answer = 'cause its not in the book.

What's lost on me, and it may show my disconnect from other forms of teaching, is if I were a teacher doing this assignment, I would absolutely love for someone to come up with this.  Sure, it might be as pie-in-the-sky as "astronaut" or "NFL player", but I could use it as an example for students to be creative and look outside the box.

Now, this is perhaps a caricature example, coming across as some pretty bad teaching at this point.  But we found parallels in her other classes, where there was an emphasis on worksheets, end-of-the-chapter study questions, memorization-based quizzes, and other activities with no match to instructional outcomes (this same class awards extra credit for the completion of crossword puzzles).

This all led to some very sad conclusions that my daughter and I came up with:

1. Teachers care.  It was my daughter's conclusion that teachers don't care at all, but that isn't true.  They do care about students feelings.  They often care very deeply about the content that they teach.  They almost always care about keeping the class running smoothly without students getting physically or emotionally hurt.

2. But, they don't all care about creativity.  Sure, all teachers will say they do.  But valuing creativity is hard.  You have to give up quite a bit of autonomy in a room.  And it requires you to be willing to grade a lot of different demonstrations of learning.  Which will take more time.

3. Even worse, teachers don't all care about learning.  This is a harsh statement.  Again, all say they do.  But when you have an assigned lesson, and when students do something less than perfect on that lesson, if a teacher simply gives "the right answers", if a teacher simply issues a point total or a grade, if a teacher simply moves on to the next lesson, then they don't care about content being learned.  They care more about content being taught.

In another class, my daughter has a workbook with study questions at the end of the chapter.  Each chapter, the students answer the questions by looking up the answer in the chapter.  And then, they review the answers in class, and are told what the correct answer is.  The lesson in this case builds the skill of looking in a text and finding a set answer.  Say what you want about that outcome, but the reality is, students are never taught how to get better at this skill.  They get the answers.  They might get an explanation of why such-and-such is the correct answer.  But they are never taught how to better look in a text and find the answer.  The teacher is more concerned that content is taught than the outcome skill is learned.

4. Straight A's are way overrated.  The result of this is my daughter is getting a B+ in her Imagineering-free class.  That is the source of all our stress last night.  She didn't like the fact that her individual desires for her learning were denied, so she shut down on the assignment and didn't do very well.  She was very surprised to hear from her educator-mother and educator-father that there were many classes that were simply ridiculous in what they demanded of students.  We said the unthinkable to her... getting straight A's is not a very healthy goal.

5. You have to determine the hoops to jump through.  You first have to determine whether your classroom is one that values your creativity and your learning.  If so, then that classroom should be your top priority as a student.

If not, then you have to determine what is being asked of you, and simply do it.  Or cause yourself a deal of stress and anxiety with the teacher.

So, here's my frustration.  These are awful conclusions for an educator, be it me or anyone else, to come up with.  But, students everywhere are making these same conclusions, whether in a discussion with their parents, their friends, or simply in their own head.  What are we as teachers doing about this?  How are we moving beyond lip service of vision statements, beyond just stating "all children must learn" and "creativity is important" and actually mean it?

I'll probably have the answer after another 6-month blogging hiatus.