Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Conversation

During an informal walk through earlier in the week, I entered into a room where the class was discussing President Obama’s State of the Union Address. The class, including the teacher, was sitting in a circle. I settled into a desk on the outside of the circle and listened in. On numerous occasions I have observed this particular class deeply engaged in a whole class discussion. As was the case during a previous pop-in, I could not leave. Even though there were other classes I wanted to see, the conversation was to captivating to leave.

This particular class, Classics Symposium, is a wheel course in a small 12th grade Classics Academy. The purpose of the course is to provide a space where students can further discuss and debate the essential questions and themes that serve as the foundation for this senior academy. Moreover, the course explores creativity and critical thinking.

"The Symposium for the Classics Academy is an exploratory, full-year class that will delve deeply into the concept of creativity. The class will actively implement whole-mind strategies and activities in order to break down traditional modes of learning and to expand students’ views of themselves, as well as their personal concepts of creativity."

There was a strong connection between President Obama’s address Tuesday night and the goals of the Classics Symposium. Pundits cited that the President’s address lacked specifics. Absent from the speech were narrowly defined short and long term goals the administration hoped to achieve. Instead, the president challenged the creative spirit of Americans. Citing Robert Kennedy, the President said the future is ours to win. Through innovation, we can overcome challenges this country faces. In a class that has spent the first part of the year examining creativity, the state of the union address fit perfectly within the context of the course.

When I walked in students were debating the point as to whether American lacked the creative energies to compete in the global marketplace. Had our time come and passed and we were now witnessing the rise of nations such as China and India that cultivated a creative spirit amongst its citizens that surpassed what we can muster. Competing beliefs surfaced during the discussion with students making compelling arguments about the President’s address.

The conversation shifted to analyze elements of the speech that commented on our educational system. Students started to make connections between the role schools play in fostering creativity and innovation. Several classroom participants shared their own academic history as a way to forward the discussion. However, what was most compelling about the whole class conversation was that students started to question the current academic structure. Learners called into question the validity of standardized tests, the contemporary relevance of advanced placement courses and limitations embedded into a traditional grading system. Students were honest in saying why they had enrolled in AP courses, stayed up late to complete assignments and sought entry into test prep courses. While the conversation was cut short by the changing bell, you could see that students were beginning to doubt the traditional educational paradigm and whether this model was suited to prepare students for obstacles their generation will confront.

I left the class thinking that this conversation needs to happen more often. I believe this is true for two reasons. First, change is a community endeavor. The focus on rethinking education needs to include all stakeholders and not just teachers. Yes, teachers play a significant role in redesigning the classroom experience, but students and parents have to understand why these changes need to occur. To a certain extent we have run into this at the high school I work at. 12th grade English teachers I oversee moved from delivering a traditional essay driven midterm to an inquiry-based assignment. The 12th grade English midterm is not an event, but rather a multi-layered process. Teachers have received push back from students who would rather or maybe feel more comfortable sitting for an essay exam. I applaud those English teachers for what they are asking students to do. I just wonder whether students see the value and rigor embedded into the process or have been shaped to believe in a more traditional system of assessment. The push to reinvent education has to be shared with students for certain expectations to be privileged.

Secondly, how are we to inspire students to become teachers. The President made an appeal to the American public when he stated:

“In fact, to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you.”

How are we to develop future teachers or as referenced in the address “nation builders”, if high schools refrain from analyzing and discussing education? Maybe we can foster a generation of creative and innovative instructors if we begin to have meaningful conversations about learning, instruction and school design well before graduate school or college.

Political allegiances aside, I hope we can rise to meet the challenges set forth by our President. I hope the creative spirit and innovative fortitude of Americans is alive and well and that our schools cultivate the type of thinking valued in the 21st Century.