Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why Teaching Matters--Part 3

You know the Big Buzzword in American education today is "standardized learning."  So I'm going to let you in on a secret:  Most of what matters in teaching can't really be measured.  (It's like trying to say, "We need standardized parenting.")

My kind of art.
In my history classes, for example, we used to do all kinds of projects--and since students could choose the kinds they did, they almost always played to their talents and strengths.  I used to be a terrible student, myself, when I was a teen.  A bit of a bad attitude.  Even got an "F" in eighth grade art. 

So, thirty years later, my students scoffed at my drawing abilities (see example, left).

Luckily, I had kids with all kinds of gifts.  So, if they wanted to do debates, like Chris Dorgan and Chelsea Williams, they did debate projects.  If they wanted to do creative writing, they could do creative writing, like D. J. Kimble and Andrea Dearden.  My last year in teaching, Christian Barnett loved building models.  I encouraged him to do models for projects and he did wonderful work.  Zach Fein and Mitul Desai, a few years earlier, did a fantastic scale model of Auschwitz.  I gave them an "A+" without really having to think about it. 

Zach went on to become an architect.

In other words:  you never know what seeds you plant when you plant knowledge and you can't be sure how they'll grow.

Recently, I was looking over a few examples of art projects I happened to keep.  I wish I'd kept a thousand more; but when you turn students loose and let them use their talents, that's where knowledge truly blossoms, in individual ways. 

Think about "standardized education" in terms of 9/11, for example.

If you were following a set curriculum in 2001, technically, you would have been in violation for stopping to examine the story, since it would have happened after "standards" were already set in stone. In my class, at that time, however, I was able to let students do projects on a topic that interested them.  Two young ladies, Courtney Allen and Tara Main, turned in a Pop-Up Book on September 11.

Driving to work on a beautiful September day.
(Allen and Main.)

At work in an office--before the attack.
(Allen and Main.)
Unfortunately, once No Child Left Behind was fully implemented, here in Ohio we were stuck following a strict new curriculum. 

So:  if we're teaching Ancient World History, what's the one fact about Islam you'd think I should teach?  Because that's all there's going to be on the standardized test every year. 

One fact about Islam.

When Chase Giles does an Alphabet Book on Islam, then, are 25 pages wasted?  Does depth of understanding count for nothing?  That doesn't make sense.

(Art by Chase Giles.)

(Art by Chase Giles.)

The first year I ever taught Ancient World History, I decided to have my students read parts of Homer's Iliad; and again they responded.  In that case, one project possibility was to join the cast and crew of a comic play, called "Jessica of Troy," the story of Hector, Paris, Helen, Achilles and Jessica Simpson.  We even added a Greek chorus for students who liked to sing. Alex Neal, Suzie Culbertson and Anna Eltringham all excelled, as did dozens more.

Amanda Shelton was more artistically inclined.  So she did a series of sixteen water colors on the same topic--well, not Jessica, of course.

Paris leaps from the ranks of the Trojans to battle Menelaus.
(Amanda Shelton.)

Andromache tries to convince Hector to avoid his fight with Achilles.
(Amanda Shelton.)
Achilles drives his spear into Hector's neck.
(Amanda Shelton.)
For most of my career I taught American history and we used to do a lesson on Father Bartolomew Las Casas, a Spanish priest, who tried to save Native Americans from abuse.  In a reading I prepared for students, it mentioned soldiers throwing babies into a river and calling out, "boil there you offspring of the devil."  So we talked at length about "labels" people use to describe those they don't like (i. e. fag, jock, nerd, kike, gook, nigger), and about how this leads to "dehumanization." Finally, we talked about the antidote.  We talked about empathy.
Ian Wagers, took the lesson to heart and turned it into a wonderful comic book:

Father Antonio was one of the first priests
to warn settlers that what they were doing was wrong.
(Ian Wagers.)

At first, Las Casas did not care about the natives.
He changes his mind, freed his own slaves and became a priest.
The book he wrote was titled:  A Brief History of the Indies.
(Ian Wagers.)

I think it mattered--to focus on empathy--even if that can't be measured on a standardized test. 

I think it mattered that Ian and so many others had a chance to exercise their gifts in ways they chose themselves. 

Teaching always mattered.

1 comment:

  1. Just so you know, I never had your class because I moved to Loveland in 8th grade. But I was in the grade that the student's did Jessica of Troy, and I was friends with some of the students who put it on. During our senior year, people still mentioned Jessica of Troy... I was very sorry to miss it! :)