Monday, November 13, 2017

#9: Creativity in Society and School

During last week’s class, we talked about how school and society are limiting and squandering student creativity. But first, let’s discuss what creativity means in education. Creativity is boundless; it’s the fine arts (art, music, and acting). It’s the use of talents to achieve a goal or express oneself. It’s giving students the autonomy and freedom to think outside the box and present what they’ve learned in their own ways. Creativity gives students power, helps them own their learning, and makes the work more meaningful. It works in tandem with the logical side of the brain, giving it power to try knew things and think outside the box. So why are schools trying to stifle it?

Part of being creative means taking risks and learning from them. But are curriculum standards constantly tell students that there is only one answer and way to solve a problem. In short, if you make a mistake or try something new, you are wrong. By teaching in this way, we are mechanizing our students, creating measureable copies to fuel our science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) workforce. Little do we realize that the STEM field is over populated, grossly competitive, and many STEM majors end up working jobs outside their degree. But that’s discussion for another day. Since schools encourage, and often enforce multiple years of STEM courses, we indirectly (and sometimes directly) tell our students that they cannot afford to pursue other interests.

All across society we tell students that jobs in English, anthropology, journalism, fine arts, graphic design, religion, history, and the like are foolish pursuits because they won’t get a job or be paid high salaries. Not too surprisingly, these majors all have creative and philosophical value. The reason society frowns on these degrees and insincerely tells pursuers “good luck” is because we label and monetize everything. We say success is determined by the numbers on your paycheck. We ignore intrinsic desires and interests, squashing dreams and creativity left and right. Just search the internet for “worst majors” and you’ll see the evidence right there. Words like “least valuable”, “unemployment”, and “earnings” litter the page. Stereotypes and policing like this kills students’ dreams. They are not treated as humans with individuality, but as human capital.

So what can teachers do to bring creativity back into the classroom, despite society’s attempt to kill it with scripted curriculums and standards? For starters, using our voices to shed light on the problem will help critique it. While one teacher cannot change a whole school, let alone a whole system, a network of likeminded, collaborating teachers can. The process will be slow, but creating a platform and movement to give our students choice and creative freedom is a great way to make the work meaningful, give them a chance to express themselves, and discover their talents and interests. This can be done by giving students multiple ways to present their learning (for example, a skit, presentation, essays, project, etc.).  As teachers, it is not our job to tell students what career they should go into, but help them conceptualize the real life applications of their interests. If the school district gets on board, you can even give students opportunities to try out their interests in internships around the community.

While bringing creativity back into American schools will be a battle, especially with political talk to cut out the fine arts and physical activity all together, it is a cause that will intrinsically better the lives of our students. Schools should help them enter the careers they want to pursue, not the careers society tells them. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Post #8: Podcast

In my Literacy Education course, we are creating Podcasts about one of the topics we have discussed this semester. My partner and I are going to talk about "building relationships with students", a topic I fittingly wrote about in my first blog post. By reflecting on this topic now in order to discuss it in the Podcast, I will be able to see how my understanding of the topic has changed due to my experiences in Carver and the many classes I have had since the beginning of this course.

While it is easy to say "you should build relationships with your students", it is a lot more complicated than that. Our students come from so many diverse backgrounds that it can be hard to find common interests or relate with their experiences. You should never fake an interest in order to relate to your student because they will discover you're a fraud and lose respect for you. Just be your quirky, passionate self and the students will love you for who you are.

Also, you need to find a balance between being a friend and being their teacher. If you are too relaxed and giving, the students will not have any structure. With chaotic lives, all students crave structure and responsibility to some extent. If they get use to your relaxed, push over attitude they will become angry and blame you for their failures when you try to manage the class, leading to distrust and unreliability. Though it can be hard to discipline students, if you do not stick to your rules you will lose respect. In some cases, work with the student to find a compromise or create a plan for how the student can get their work done and improve. You need to treat all your students equally and hold them accountable for their work. 

These class rules are something you should build with your students during the first week of class. Don't just tell them the rules; let them be a part of the process. With their input and discussion, the rules will be something they can all understand and be held accountable for. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Visualizing the Future

     Alongside finishing up the “I am From” projects with the eighth graders at Carver, we had the opportunity to watch a TedEd presentation by Dennis Littky, the co-founder of Big Picture Schools. During his presentation he talked about the importance of individualized learning and how it helps students foster of a sense of personal story and having value. The idea behind his school is to help students think about life beyond school and begin interacting with their community and career interests through standards based internships. He wants students to understand they have control over their lives and that their learning is meaningful.
     This presentation really hits the purpose and growth stimulated through working on the “I am From” videos. Through the process, I worked one-on-one with my students and was able to begin building relationships with them. We were able to talk, work, and get to know one another in conjunction with learning. Following Littky’s philosophies, the project helped students feel they have a story to tell and a destination they are striving to. Whether that future be a career, personal goals, or family related, we helped them really begin visualizing life outside of school; they are more than just a pre-teen and student. Because of these qualities, my students were able to find meaning in the project, helping them to own their learning and strive to complete the task. Talking and writing about their life, students were able to conceptualize their interests and skills: they all have special identities and can move in the directions they want to go. Just like in Littky’s Big Picture Schools, they had individualized and meaningful learning and were able to exercise literary and social studies curriculum standards.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Fairness and Exceptions

This past Monday we had the opportunity to talk with Carver staff about community services in schools. During the presentation, they brought up some important scenarios about how to work with diverse students while not sacrificing your position and respect as their teacher. The big question they posed was “how do you treat your students the same but also understand they have different experiences and trials?” Colorblindness does not work in school, as a student’s race greatly impacts who they are and their experiences as a person. We cannot expect them to push these parts of themselves aside when in school because it is unhealthy for them to bottle up these emotions, such as fear, anger, and stress. But it is also important we teach them that when in school they are a student, a different version of themselves with responsibilities and expectations. As teachers, how do we help them balance the two?
Though the counseling center is well equipped to aid students in these situations, sometimes these factors will challenge your rules and classroom environment. How do we react when a student says he or she did not do their homework because their parents were gone and they had to take care of their siblings all weekend? How do we respond when a student is constantly asleep in class because they are kept up all night by fights or are fatigued from malnourishment? Instead of getting mad at our students, we need to approach them with curiosity and care. It is important to get to know our students, understand their background, and ask about their interests; this helps us learn the ways to best support their learning and help them succeed.
However, it is vital that we do not overcompensate or step out of our teacher roles. If we go back on our rules, such as when homework is due or sleeping in class, students will no longer have structure and will begin to negatively rely on us. They will expect exceptions to the rule and will no longer be able to trust how you will act. They may get upset when you stop giving them exceptions, accusing you of letting them do it in the past; they will blame you for their failures. Because of this, we need to keep consistent rules. Though students may struggle, they will be able to trust you as a teacher and will look to you to help them prioritize rather than take care of the problem for them.

By maintaining this trust, you will be able to build a relationship with your class. They will respect you, view you as someone they can come to for support, hold themselves accountable, and see themselves as students who are able to learn.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Writing to Learn

In class this past week we began reading “The Freedom Writers” by the teacher Erin Gruwell and her students. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s compilation of journal entries from the teacher and her struggling students documenting their growth both academically, personally, and communally. Throughout the book, you are able to see the how the students’ feelings towards themselves and their peers change from hate and doubt to acceptance and belief. One of the key facilitators in this growth is the act of writing.
When we write, we open ourselves to self-reflection concerning our opinions and experiences. It is important to allow students to write what they want without the fear of being judged, graded, or punished. In the book, Gruwell allowed her students to write deep accounts of violence, drug abuse, and hatred. By getting their feelings onto the paper they were able to critically think about their beliefs. Many students began to question why they were in gangs, why they hated one another, and what was wrong with their community. Because of this, they began to strive to be more empathetic and participate in school. More constructively, students were able to document their growth and understanding in class; by the end of the semester and school year, they saw just how far they had come in their writing, comprehension, and critical thinking skills.  
Because of these opportunities to reflect and see one’s growth, it’s important that we have our students keep journals. Autonomy is the key here, but it can also be helpful to give prompts that spark creative thought. Another positive to journaling is that it gets the students writing. Though grammar and spelling should not be graded or enforced here, simply the act of writing helps students hone the craft and develop their voices. Reading over their journals, they can see the power they have to share their thoughts and the progress of their writing skills.

Journaling doesn’t have to take a lot of time, simply spare five or ten minutes at the beginning or end of class for writing. Many teachers already use this chunk as free reading time, so swapping in writing every once in a while would be a good change of pace and help hone those writing skills in tandem with their reading. But if your class schedule is still too tight, perhaps have in-class journaling once a week and encourage them to continue writing outside of class.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

"I Am From"

Today at Carver we worked with eighth graders on “I Am From” projects. This is a popular  activity that challenges students to learn more about their past, city, family, and self. During the project, students reflect on how these relationships and experiences have impacted their lives, and are given the opportunity to share these discoveries with the class. The Carver students will be creating videos to showcase their experiences and research, but there are many different formats classes can use based on students’ skill, interest, and resources such as poems, narratives, or presentations.
            Beginning the project, I got the opportunity to work with three students today. I helped them understand the questions they are to reflect on and brainstorm ideas. This was an amazing education experience. These students went from giving me nervous answers and feeling they had nothing interesting to say, to telling me about how they lived in a different country for six years! I got the chance to help them reflect on their lives, to think about what experiences have shaped them into who they are today. Helping them to make these connections and unlock their stories was very special. Their eyes lit up at the prospect of making videos about themselves, and they are beginning to understand how we are constantly shaped by (and shaping) those around us.

For this weekend I challenged them to do some research about their hometowns, interview friends and family, and to start taking pictures and videos. Each of their stories were unique—they have already been through so much at the young age of fourteen. I made sure they felt proud of their history, of their family and culture. These experiences should be celebrated, and the “I Am From” project gives them each a chance to shine.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Motivation to Read

This past week I got the opportunity to work with a seventh grader at Carver to create a reading profile. The goal of the profile is to figure out why middle school students are losing interest and motivation to read, whether in the class room or for leisure. My peers and I asked questions like, “what do you like to do in your free time”, “what are your favorite kinds of books”, and “do you enjoy reading”. Many of our responses were in the negative, that students DO NOT like reading and find it boring. They complained it takes too long, it’s hard to focus, and that there are not enough pictures. However, when asked what their favorite books were, we were surprised to find that they liked more advanced and even classic works, such as Where the Red Fern Grows. My student, who said reading is boring, really likes comic books and graphic novels. It is true these books have many pictures, but they still rely on words to explain the narrative.  What these books special, and why weren’t they boring? What motivated them to finish reading?

As a middle school student, I remember not enjoying my English classes; I thought they were “boring” and that the material we read was a waste of time. But I was also a student who would devour a series of novels within a few short weeks. I’m not sure how to solve this stereotype driven enigma, but perhaps the answer lies in autonomy. Maybe we should give students the choice over certain novel/short stories to read for class and then allow them to share what they learned, liked, and didn’t like with the rest of the class. Seeing their peers praising a book could motivate other students to read it for their selves, and to compare experiences and opinions about the novel with their friends.

We cannot convince students that reading is fun; only they can decide that. But perhaps with freedom of choice and positive literary environment, they may find their selves motivate to read.