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.

Drum Building Workshop 2013

This last week, and this upcoming week, we are making drums with our lovely Artist in Residence, Stan the Drum Man! Stay tuned for astonishing pictures of drums in progress!

Jordancarving Morgan sanding turtle rune

Using Choice for Intellectual Development

The bell rings; go to class. Take out your pencils, write your name on the top right of the paper. Answer the questions (correctly!) in the chapter and turn in to be checked.

All of this produces obedient children and potentially good test scores, but it cannot produce thinkers.

There is a well-researched, brilliant pedagogy (for visual art) that I think can be applied to self-contained classrooms as well: Teaching for Artistic Behavior.

The idea: Teach children basic techniques with varying materials, show how to use for the particular subject-matter projects, and let them choose how to do it.

Choose! Will children choose well? Will they work well?

What’s the choice: give it a try or raise a nation of automatons? Even one day of choice per week, even a morning or an afternoon, compels children to think about what they’re doing, instead of simply and mindlessly doing what they’re told.

Will they fool around? Waste time? Misbehave? Do mediocre work?

The research–and many teachers’ classroom practice–say otherwise. My own experience is that students work hard to reach excellence, far harder than they would otherwise.

If you use art projects to teach academics, students must review concepts over and over in order to include them in the project. This type of review is deeper and more lasting.

Eventually, our students will graduate and enter a world of choices. Many of them fall into serious debt, drug use, sometimes aimlessness. We adults like to blame young people for this behaviors, but what if we have contributed to such behaviors by never helping kids make real choices?

We have the chance to do this in our classrooms. We should give it a try.

Brain Friendly

What happens to your brain when you get stressed?

There may be several possible answers, but the one that is most important for educators and learners is this:

In stress conditions, the neural pathways to long-term and short-term learning are chemically blocked. This means that no matter how much you’ve studied, how hard you try, and how much you want to remember, it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to remember.

What causes stress?

These days, we live in stress. Kids go to school and eat breakfast loaded with refined carbs. They may have left their mom at home high, hungry, bruised, or worried to death. Dad may have been picked up late last night by the police. Kids may have been watching movies or TV shows filled with brutality and blood. They may have been exchanging bullying texts with other kids. We don’t know, but we do know that they live in an environment drenched with stress.

This means that no matter how hard they try to remember (and how hard we try to help them), the neural pathways are blocked, and it’s not going to happen, at least not very well.

How can we restore the neural pathways? For this, we have to replace stress chemicals with pleasure chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins. And how can we do that in school?

Joyous surprise: our brains produce these pleasure chemicals with physical exercise and arts activities. Some schools, following the brilliant research in the recent book Spark, incorporate strenuous physical activity in the morning, sometimes throughout the day.

Lacking that, every classroom teacher can do one important thing: use arts activities to teach the academic core standards. Even very simple activities such as drawing or painting a science concept or vocabulary list can replace stress chemicals with pleasure chemicals.

Happily, these types of activities also reinforce learning, since they require higher-level thinking to produce them.

That’s my alternative-learning tip for today and for always: teach with arts activities.