My Choice-Based Classroom This year

I read about Teaching for Artistic Behavior for two or even maybe three years before I actually tried it. I wish I had not delayed that long, but I had one big concern:

If junior-high students were given true choice and autonomy in my classroom, would they not just coast along and do slipshod work, or even no work at all?

I didn’t trust the true and noble impulse that we share as humans, to create! to make art! and I was wrong…junior high students are humans, just like the rest of us (lame joke, I know). They cherished the idea of choice in our classroom.kid art

Instead of hanging back, doing little, lamely mimicking my short weekly demo, they launched into passionate, focused, quiet and productive artmaking. Indeed, sometimes I felt that they barely, politely tolerated my demo so they could get back to the work they were deeply doing.

I was stunned that they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and it wasn’t often the easy way out. Instead, they took on projects and processes that seemed to me very hard (painstakingly carving and sanding a little wooden joined action figure, for example, a project that took one of my boys almost a month!). They would go out and buy stacks of canvases, because I only have canvas board, so they could pursue a series of abstract paintings.

They would teach each other, so that small groups would often be working on similar projects together. They would troubleshoot on their own without always turning to me. They used real tools, sometimes dangerous ones–but this year, for the first time, I never lost one X-acto knife, because they innately knew that they needed to guarantee good use of the tools if they wanted to keep using them.

I had a student teacher this year, and I am grateful she had a whole semester with me in TAB Art. I hope she has the courage to keep on with it next year. I left my stations in place, so there’s a good chance.

“Teachers, There Will Be No More Teaching!”

If you had heard that in a meeting, would you believe it? Image

It happened to me! During the afternoon, I teach in a juvenile corrections classroom. I chose this job over a full-time college teaching job because I felt that here I could make a true difference to kids in tough situations.

For many years, I did! Using a cross-curricular approach and an arts-based pedagogy, my incarcerated students and I had a super experience together, and I can say that in many cases, it made a difference in their lives. Many of them still come up to me and tell me they’re still drawing or still practicing playing their recorder, thanks to our work together.

Then came a new administrator who did not like it, Sam I Am. She only wanted students to do homework from the schools, six hours a day. She had to keep reminding me :). The came the mandate from the state that there would be no more teaching in the classrooms. 

Instead, we were to make students do their assigned homework from their schools six hours a day, as before, and if they had no work or finished their work, they were to do worksheets and tests from textbooks, all set up by the state.

She actually said, “Teachers, there will be no more teaching!”

What was I to do then? I was to sit behind the desk and get up and walk around and make sure everyone was doing their assignments, by gosh! And they were to be punished if not. And if they needed more worksheets run off, then oh joy, I was to go to the copy machine and run off more work for them.

“May I use fifteen or twenty minutes for an arts break?” I asked the administrator. She hotly and firmly told me no.

Well, I did anyway. I just called it an extension of the break we already had in place, mid-afternoon. 

Some educators see the increasing emphasis on standardized testing in the same way. They correctly infer that if we teachers are going to be evaluated, receive merit pay, and eventually, if the logic here holds, even keep our jobs based on our student scores, then our dynamic classroom teaching will indeed go by the board.

“No more teaching!”

The Only Problem This Year…

The only problem this year? I would have to look several layers up, to the state legislature, to answer that one.Image

This year, my kids were great I can say that I had few to no discipline problems with any kids this year, and that’s saying something! What did I have trouble with? Evaluation procedures from my principal. 

Notice that I said “procedures,” because he didn’t want to do them any more than I wanted to have them. And it’s not because I think I’m doing anything badly; on the contrary, it’s been a super year in my classroom, since I implemented TAB Art!

Where does the trouble come from? It comes from a wrong-headed notion that you need to have statistics, numbers, to prove that teachers are doing well. This is a national misapprehension that our state legislature has gladly glommed onto.

Only now we hit the sticky wicket: how do you get the numbers?

Our state took a strange and wrongheaded approach, which is why I call it a problem. Not being in possession of a decent assessment protocol for teachers, it adopted a book by a teacher duo about engagement strategies, Class Acts.

In itself, I don’t mind that book, but I think it is certainly limited and short-sighted as a universal assessment tool. However, our state and therefore our district bought into it as a good measure of good teaching. The districts bought a book for every educator and administrator in the state (oh, happy lady authors). They also bought an ipad program with tabs that principals use to measure whether teachers are doing the strategies in the book. 

These numbers, according to our district, should not be universally high (the old teaching conundrum that not everybody can get A’s)–even if the teachers are doing a great job. Our principal pretty much ignored that stricture and just evaluated people as he saw it, but he ran himself ragged doing all the required evaluations. I always like having him visit my room and I don’t mind the scrutiny, ever.

It’s just a wrong-headed system.


Teachers Cheat, Too!

In a school culture where we teachers try so hard to help students be honest (and not to cheat), why then do we hear of more and more teachers cheating themselves?

The answer is simple. More and more (ignorant, ill-educated, ill-informed) legislators are imposing sanctions on teachers–and schools!–where students are not performing yet better on high-stakes standardized tests.

When NCLB was the only game in town, some schools across the country were even shut down because their students didn’t show adequate yearly progress. When Obama announced the voluntary excision of NCLB from the states, we thought sure there would be more states opting out, but that hasn’t proven to be the case. I think it is because legislators still demand standardized-test proof that schools are doing well, and states haven’t come up with alternative measures for it.

I think the direction is clear. At present, many schools base performance pay on student scores. It’s a short leap to setting salaries by test scores, and a small tumble down the precipice to firing teachers based on these scores.

No wonder teachers are induced to cheat. Here are some ways they do it. 

My favorite way for adults to handle these unfair measurements is John Gatto’s Bartleby Project.  In Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the main character handles his daily grind by politely saying, “I would prefer not to.”

Of course, teachers can’t say that, but students can. I wish that Gatto’s approach would become a national movement.

Deeper Issues of Testing and Cheating

So long as there are kids and there are tests, there will be cheating. If most of us are honest, we too have participated in cheating. There’s something about taking a test that makes us want to get everything right, even if there are no high stakes involved.

It’s the old way of doing things: teach the information, read it in the chapter, study for the quiz, take the quiz or test. The results determine your grade. Did you understand? Can you use the information? Did you engage with the material at all? None of this matters. What matters is that you chose the correct response, A, B, C, or D.

Masterful teachers have long known that this whole business of testing doesn’t reveal much about what students know and even less about what they can do. I think this is why the Common Core is such a good idea, because it requires that we understand enough to be able to do things, to use the information, to apply what we learned.

Many teachers give open-book tests and that makes a great deal of sense to me. After all, what I want is to create learners. Most of us as adults don’t remember all those specifics we were tested on in schools. What we do know how to do is find the information we need (usually on a search engine, but that’s a discussion for another day–our addiction to search engines for info).

It makes more sense, for deeper learning, for students to show mastery in some way. You can’t cheat on that!

Retiring and my Juvenile Corrections Class

I left college teaching so I could teach in juvenile corrections. What I brought was an arts-based approach to teaching and learning–and what developed has been more than a decade of wonderful relationships with incarcerated kids and with staff inside the facility. If it were not for new state and local strictures which actually forbid me from spending any time in arts instruction “inside,” I’d have a hard time actually letting go and retiring. As it is, however, for the last two years, I’ve been censured and restricted from doing any instruction, and particularly and always, arts instruction. It seems that the new fashion is more and more “answer-the-questions” worksheets–as if half a century or more of research has not proven that to be ineffective at best and perhaps harmful at worst. The research shows that arts-based instruction enhances intellectual capacity and creates positive reinforcement for academics–but evidently the juvenile-corrections educational administrations just do not care. I see arts instruction as a way of opening lifelong doors to rehabilitation and permanent change, and the facility staff has always agreed and supported it.Image I have tried to be compliant with the educational administration, but just weeks before my retirement, I don’t so much care anymore. What are they going to do, fire me? Of course, I still work to support their educational goals by making sure the book work gets done, but at the same time, I always include some kind of art, music, rhythm, movement or other activity.

Last Friday, after several days of learning basic body percussion a la Keith Terry, 

which I learned at a Body Percussion Conference a couple of years ago, I showed them a wonderful YouTube video by a favorite group, Molodi, and then I taught them a short sequence I learned during the workshop (a brief disclaimer: it was hard for me to learn everything Molodi taught in the workshop, since most everyone there was under 30 and as you can guess, I am certainly not, but taking such risks is what helps me be a better teacher). 

The sequence was a little hard for them, too. We had a good time practicing, laughing, and learning. Afterward, when we settled back down to the books, they started talking to me.

“You can’t retire!” they were saying. “I will give you $100 if you don’t retire! Who is going to teach us if you retire?”

This is about art, music, rhythm, and love. This is about changing lives. This is about relationships. This is sad indeed. But in the long run, retirement is probably the best thing for right now. If you could have been in the meeting where the administrator said, I kid you not, “Teachers, there will be no more teaching!”, then you would know that there is no hope for me left in my juvenile-corrections class. Hopefully after retiring, when we move to warmer climes, I can find another, more supportive venue, to bring the gifts that I have.

How much is too much? Common Core

From what I can read online, one of the big criticisms of the Common Core is that it prescribes too much. Critics feel that good teachers know what to teach without so much detail.

Could be…although I see plenty of Language Arts teachers, for example, just having the students read the offerings in the books and answering the questions. In such cases, the Common Core is certainly a better alternative, because it purports to help students figure things out with critical thinking skills instead of just doing the book/question routine.

At least the Common Core gives students a chance to read and experience the classics. And if a teacher is skilled, students can even understand what they’re reading. That would be a gift! Assessments are another problem, because if higher-level thinking is the criterion, that’s indeed tricky to assess. I guess the potential test writers will have to do some higher-level thinking too.


Common Core Solves High-Stakes Test Issues

If you are like me, you have despaired of the immovable entrenchment of high-stakes standardized tests at all grade levels. Teachers of tested subjects are so bound by the pressures of high-stakes test results that they often feel they can’t teach their best; they just teach to the test.

The Common Core curriculum solves this.reading

The whole point of the Common Core is to promote higher-level thinking, problem-solving, true understanding, and being able to apply what you learn. This is directly antithetical to teaching to the standardized test.

Did you know that on average, one in four high school students don’t graduate? And did you know that one in five cannot even read their diplomas? Yet these are students from schools that have passed AYP, which means that a high percentage of all students have passed the standardized tests. Clearly, they haven’t learned; they haven’t learned! Certainly they haven’t understood.

The Common Core requires understanding. True, there is a big lag between the actual Core and tests which address it, and that’s a problem, because students in schools with Common Core may not pass the standardized tests.

But from my point of view, the test results don’t show us much, unless they are formative tests, which only help us to see where students need help. The projects based on the Common Core certainly do show us that students understand.

Conservatives and the Common Core

There’s a state chapter of the Eagle Forum that hates the Common Core. They go to the Legislature every year to fight against it, along with sex education and other conservative issues.serious

As I understand it, they think that the Common Core will demand that everyone teach material that is offensive and that will corrode the family. They want teachers to have complete freedom in choosing curriculum so that somehow this will keep family values safe.

The irony here is that the Common Core material, which was selected by top teachers all over the nation, is very traditional. If you were to choose material that would actually suit conservatives this would be much of the Common Core. Ironically, if you have read Generation  Me, you know that many young teachers today are members of the Me Generation, many of whom might not have even been exposed to the standard literature works that the Common Core provides.

I wish that conservatives would take time to peruse the common core literature list to see the excellent works provided there. I think they would see that there’s nothing subversive here. Indeed, they will likely see that these are friendly and familiar works that they read when they grew up.