Several seemingly unrelated subjects have been floating around in my head lately. The first involves New Orleans, a city that’s gone crazy about its football team’s first appearance in the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7th.
Some school districts and private and parochial schools around New Orleans have canceled school for the Monday after the game, reasoning that most students would be partying hard all weekend and wouldn’t show up anyway.
Call me an old fogey, but I find closing schools to be irresponsible behavior on the part of the adults. Are the 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders going to be worn out from partying? What are working parents supposed to do, or are they also exempt from going to work?
Worse, however, the educators are bypassing a remarkable teachable moment, a chance to connect learning with the city’s obsession with the Saints. Why not encourage kids to wear their Saints clothing to school that day, schedule a celebration (or a wake), and—this is the key—build some interesting lesson plans in various courses? Math is a no-brainer because of all the statistics, but students could also write about the game and their experience watching it. They could write letters to favorite players, congratulating or commiserating. I’d assign students who don’t care much about sports to track commercials; then I’d show some in class and help the kids analyze the rhetorical and persuasive techniques being used.
By canceling school the adults are inadvertently revealing who’s really in charge: the kids. The unspoken message is clear: what we offer in schools isn’t enough to hold students’ attention.
Which brings me to the subject of classroom control: A careful viewer of The Real World of Teach for America, our series of portraits of TFA teachers, detected a thread running through many of the profiles. “Most of these teachers seem to be overly concerned about control,” he told me. “I get the feeling that they’ve been taught some simple rule like ‘Control first, teaching next.’” What about Lindsay or Colleston, I asked him? “They’re the exception,” he said. “They seem to understand that control is a byproduct of stimulating education.”
I told the man about a Teach for America rookie whose class we filmed in last week. Matt Taylor teaches English at an alternative school, a middle school for kids who are four, five or six years below grade level. Just imagine trying to teach 16-year-olds whose literacy level is not much above “See Spot Run” but who are acutely sensitive to their age/skill level discrepancy! In the 90-minute class I observed, Matt engaged his students in 8 or 9 different activities, using a Promethean Board to make everything interactive. He peppered students with questions, rewarding correct answers without calling attention to incorrect ones. At one point he displayed a long paragraph on the Board, a passage that contained at least a dozen errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation. What ensued was a game in which all but one student engaged (one slept most of the class). If I remember correctly, Matt had told the students that he had found only 12 errors. They found two or three more and enjoyed the triumph of outdoing their teacher, a darn good strategy on the teacher’s part.
Control was not an issue, ever. It never is if kids are engaged.
But so much of school is about control, which brings me to technology and media, an opportunity that I think most schools are missing. Adults and kids encounter about 3000 media messages every day, from ads on TV to logos discreetly placed on a shirt breast pocket to loud New Orleans Saints jerseys. It’s time for schools to acknowledge this, embrace this, and teach to it, but first they have to give up some control.
It’s often said that children today “swim in the digital sea,” but I’m a skeptic. We’re immersed, to be sure, but I think everyone needs swimming lessons, adults and children alike. Kids may be digital natives, but that doesn’t mean they know it all. Adults—not natives but visitors–often try to harness technology in order to control the environment.
I’m in a plane on my way to the Ohio 2010 Educational Technology Conference in Columbus as I write this, and I’ve been learning from the writing and thinking of some of the participants, including Dennis Harper, the founder and CEO of Generation Yes and an internationally recognized expert on technology and education.
Harper is angry that students are, for the most part, excluded from meaningful participation in technology in schools—it’s done to them. He likens this to civil rights struggles of blacks, women and gays.
“For decades, the U.S. missed out on a lot of talent that could have been provided by women and minorities if they had been engaged and empowered. Hardly anyone is considering how much talent is being wasted by not allowing students, who represent 93% of a school’s population, to be engaged and empowered.”
I gather that Harper wants another ‘civil rights movement,’ one that will turn over control of technology in school to the students. He seems to think that high schools can and will adapt, that adults can let go of the reins.
I’m not so optimistic. Today well over 1 million students drop out of school each year. That’s about 6,000 students every day over a 180-day school year. Awful as that is, I’m almost as worried about those who do not drop out, who instead put in the seat time and endure a narrow curriculum.
So if high school doesn’t work for the million+ who drop out or for many more who endure, what’s the alternative?
We’re working on it. For the past four years we have been trying to develop an alternative to the traditional high school diploma and the GED. Our goal is a valid and reliable instrument that measures the skills that young people are going to need to have as adults: persistence, the ability to work with others (including those who may not look like them); the ability to communicate, use technology, gather and assimilate data, and make public presentations.
We call it the Verified Résumé. It’s a work in progress, involving adult trainers at our Listen Up projects and those who eventually employ the young people. Our trainers grade youth on the skills listed above, and then so do their employers. Is there a match? If not, what’s gone wrong? This résumé is a living document, validated with each new job or learning opportunity. It’s not about control but about shared learning—and learning of real skills that matter, not just stuff that can be tested on a multiple choice exam.
Will this work? We are optimistic, and we are grateful to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which just last week renewed our grant to allow the work to continue for at least one more year. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.