Saturday, October 13, 2012

Making Room for Creativity or "Hey TeacherMan, is this going to be on the test?"

   I am certainly not the only teacher who feels the push to conform to test-based skills and coverage over genuine learning, engagement, and enjoyment. More and more, however, I see this push rubbing off on my students as well. Often I feel like their preoccupation with credit borders on obsession.  There are days when I feel like my classroom is filled with Gollums yearning for their “precious” credit.

When I first started teaching, I graded everything… and I mean everything.  The cries of “TeacherMan, look at my book. Come give me my credit” and “Yo TeacherMan, you better give me my credit” still haunt me in my sleep.  Now as a “veteran” (after 4 years, I’m the most veteran teacher at my school) I’m not ashamed to say that I make random marks in my attendance book or give arbitrary “checks” on students’ work to denote mythical “credit”.  If a check mark at the top of the page pushes my students to proofread a quick-write or dig deeper on a “grammar boot-camp” mini-lesson, I’m happy to oblige because I'm certainly not going to collect and grade every piece of writing they do. 

Though I would rather they felt an intrinsic motivation to put forth their best work, I’m happy to indulge my students’ credit-obsession because I'm pragmatic.  They see tangible reward (or consequence) for their efforts.  However, when it comes to a systemic obsession with “credit” in the form of standardized test scores, I refuse to compromise.  I am so fortunate that I have a principal who is confident in my professional abilities to design curriculum that supports our students and doesn’t try to micromanage or push test-prep, drill and kill.  In spite of this, however, I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency when I’m designing unit plans. 

The other day, my English 1 (ninth grade level) class had just finished an exploration of character across a few short stories and they wrote exceptional analytical essays on the topic.  They took care, made assertions, used text-based evidence, and offered rich analysis.  Needless to say, I was very proud, particularly since this is the first time several of them have been in a classroom in over two years.  As I read the first few essays, I couldn’t wait to dive into our next unit working with style in horror fiction. 

As I worked through the massive pile of analysis, however, I grew tired… drained… wiped out.  I needed something different, something creative.  “Of course” I thought, “this must be how my students feel too”. 

I decided that we all needed a chance to flex our creative muscles (and I needed a break from character analysis). 

Before moving into style and horror, we would take a detour through poetry… and not analyzing techniques, but capturing the drama of daily life in verse.  I knew from experience that while my students are wildly talented and creative, they often seek out only what’s necessary for “credit”, as a result I decided to issue a challenge. 

I printed out twenty-five iconic and dramatic photographs and posted them around the room.  “Select an image that stands out to you and write a 25-line poem that captures the drama and emotion”, I said.


As I expected, I was met with some blank stares.  So we looked at two short examples, Hamphill’s “American Hero” and Francis’s “The Base Stealer”.  We talked about what drama means (a discussion in which I learned more about the shows Bad Girls’ Club and Basketball Wives than I ever wanted to know).   But when I felt confident that they were equipped to wrestle with my challenge, I left them to it. 

Students carefully selected images, often starting with one, then trying another, only to return to the original.  I worked my way around the room, explaining, “No, it doesn’t have to rhyme, but it can if you’d like” and “I understand you don’t think you can write poetry, but think of it as telling a story. What’s going on in the photo.”  

 When the students were all settled, I quietly selected a photo of my own and began writing, sitting at a desk right beside one of my students.  After watching me for a few minutes, he turned to one of his peers and said, “Yo, TeacherMan’s doing one too.  You gonna let us read yours TeacherMan”. “Absolutely,” I told him. 

(I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this, but I love writing beside my students.  Though I’m not always able to, especially in my bigger classes… getting 25+ students focused doesn’t always leave time for me to join in… but I’ve had a ton of success with sharing my own writing). 

Though some finished their work by the end of class, several took their images home to finish.  The next day, as students shared their work (and I shared my own), I was reminded why it’s so vital to make room for creativity and genuine expression.  Though these skills aren’t on some assessment somewhere, it’s what reading and writing is all about.  It’s tragic that students nationwide, but especially minority students in urban districts, are deprived of these type of experiences in favor of basic-skills and test prep.  No wonder students are leaving schools in droves… would you sit through 50 minutes of test prep or grammar instruction?

At any rate, I was blown away by some of the writing I received.  With very little instruction and guidance, students grabbed emotion, action, and tension.  With their permission, I've posted some excerpts:  (the image that inspired the work is beside it)

from “A Legend’s Legendary Fans
Their stomachs couldn’t bear
the excitement
Butterflies and that gut feeling
you get right before you fall.
Boom-clack. The 808s started
pouring from the speakers
next it’s the base.
Shouting, screeching and screaming
drowning out the sound of
his sweet symphony.

from “a new beginning”
But this is how the world turns
we have to start over
but where do we begin?
we have no future
we have no past
but it has to start somewhere
create a new beginning.

from “Lift Off”
The crowd is silent
Thousands waiting to see my next move
I dribble the ball
I close my eyes and open them.
I picture the crowd empty
and I am back at practice.
by myself…

from “Trouble in Time’s Square”
Screaming, yelling, crying
into a riot.
shots fired.
Boom, Boom, Boom.
Someone goes down.
Thefts and vandalism
erupts everywhere.
Cars flipped
people dead
arrested for no reason
but for being there.

After sharing their work, students talked about lines from their peers’ poetry that stood out and images that were powerful.  And not once did anyone ask, “Hey TeacherMan, is this going to be on the test?”


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