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Reflections on a Good Week

March 4, 2011

Friday night is not the usual time that I post something on InterACT, but I’m thinking about a number of positive experiences in the past week, and felt like putting them out there.

Photo by Anthony Cody.

Last Saturday, I attended a pro-labor rally in San Francisco.  Writing blog entries and posting items on Facebook, and even working with ACT to bring positive changes in education policy – those are all important.  But it feels like the time has come to do more.  We need to shout about what’s going on in education and labor, and the overall economic climate in California and the United States.  It’s time to put our feet on the ground, walk, march, stand together, be seen and heard.  I don’t know yet if the rally helped the course of politics, but it helped me.  I also had a pleasant lunch with Anthony Cody, and enjoyed, as always, dreaming big about the potential power of an informed and motivated education community.  Idealism does not have to die young.

On Monday, I had a chance to hang out with another inspiring Oakland educator, Dave Orphal.  Dave, Anthony, and I all have some overlapping affiliations, and we’ve worked together before during an ACT writing retreat in October, 2010.  Next month, Dave will be delivering a TED talk at a TEDx San Francisco Education event (TEDxSFED), and I couldn’t be happier for him; the audience is in for a treat.  You can see a preview of the talk at Dave’s blog.  While you’re there, browse other recent posts to some great ideas Dave’s working on that could benefit students and teachers.

On Tuesday, I met with some of the students for whom I serve as an academic advisor.  It’s already time to register for next year’s classes, and this week I met with my juniors.  We’re talking about their last year of high school,making sure that all their requirements have been met and trying to strike the right balance for a healthy and productive year.  I am fortunate to work in a school where I have the opportunity to meet with students and help them in this capacity over the course of three years.  (With Bill Gates and Arne Duncan cribbing off each other’s notes trying to convince the rest of us that class size doesn’t matter, take a look around at what private schools and well-funded public schools are doing.  I hope parents aren’t falling for it – I doubt it.  When we invest in our schools as communities, providing environments that foster strong relationships, we’ll thrive.  Don’t let let them sell us this snake oil).

Yvonne Cagle (NASA photo, public domain)

On Wednesday, I met astronaut Yvonne Cagle.  Dr. Cagle is much more than an astronaut, but I’m sure she’d understand my thinking that’s the cool part.  I’ve met plenty of doctors and professors (she holds those titles as well), but only two astronauts.  The occasion was a career information talk at my school.  Career Month is a special part of the spring where students have the opportunity to attend lunch time talks by people in all sorts of professions and careers.  There’s a wonderful energy in the room during these talks, as the adults are usually glad to share stories and impart advice and the students genuinely appreciate interacting with folks who have volunteered some time for their benefit.

On Thursday, a freshman walked up to me after class, and spontaneously offered some ideas that had crossed her mind during our class discussion: she’s been reading about the turmoil in Libya (just for fun), and during our class discussion she had recognized some similarities in the disillusionment described in a novel and the frustration that many Libyans feel as they try to shake off decades of autocratic rule.  Not only do I love seeing students making those connections, but she also gave me an opportunity to reflect on my teaching.  Here’s the thing: what she did in that moment perfectly fit the description of a grading standard in my class.  She showed her reading skills by making original and insightful connections between two unrelated texts.  If I’d asked her to do that for a grade, it would have been a top-notch response.  However, since I didn’t ask her to do it, since it wasn’t planned or assigned, should it “count”?  Should I consider that conversation as evidence that might influence her grade?  Maybe I’ll offer up my answers in a later blog post.  Maybe a good follow-up question for a few brave and daring souls out there would be should we consider doing away with grades so that we don’t have to have silly conversations about what “counts” in authentic learning.

Tonight, I attended a swing dance at our school gym, featuring some wonderful student musicians in the jazz orchestra.  I’d have liked to see more of the event, but for the little while that I could attend, I saw adults and students on the same dance floor, enjoying live music.  I heard students who have dedicated hours upon hours of their time, for years, to reach a high level of musical performance.  I know there are some teens out there doing things they shouldn’t tonight.  But there are also kids dressed in suits, knocking out some standards from a long, long time ago, entertaining their peers, parents, grandparents, teachers and community.

It’s been a rough few years to be a teacher, but this was a good week in one of those bad years.  There’s good news out there, good indications of what we’re capable of, as teachers, parents, students and a community.  Look for the good, recognize what makes it possible, and join the fight to make sure everyone has a chance to enjoy it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2011 4:45 am

    And you didn’t even mention the Daily Show–which has been rocking my week.

    A comment on the girl who made and shared a connection between two texts: As a music teacher, I was always trying to find places for students to share what they’d learned in band class with the outside world. Over ninety percent of HS musicians don’t continue to perform after they leave school–the instrument goes under the bed and the skills get rusty, and it’s because we don’t reinforce the great value of playing for personal pleasure.

    Reading is a little different, but not totally–how many adults never pick up a literary text, unless it’s something they’re assigned to do?

    I kept a “performances” file and gave students credit for playing their instruments out of school. That includes things like playing in church, playing in a rock band, performing at a talent show, or at the nursing home with Girl Scouts. I also offered coaching and assistance for kids who were wrestling with how to perform in situations where the music didn’t look like the neat, pre-packaged exercises, solos and band literature I was giving them. It wasn’t about the extra credit points–it was the acknowledgment that they were musicians, independent of school, that encouraged them to use in-class skills in the wider world.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 5, 2011 8:19 am

      Nancy – funny you should mention The Daily Show. I sat down to write this right after watching the March 3rd show with Diane Ravitch, so I definitely had it in mind. (And I think I saw somewhere that Diane’s book shot into the top 50 at Amazon). But as I started working my way through the week, the piece took shape and I decided to leave out the media/celebrity stuff that I’d considered (Diane Ravitch, and Matt Damon on CNN), and a blog post by Leonie Haimson that I had read in the afternoon. I kind of “borrowed” from her week-in-review approach:

  2. March 5, 2011 7:52 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I did preview David Orphal’s TEDxSFED talk and it’s definitely right on the need to foster creativity over rote memorization. Nancy Flanagan’s approach takes “authentic assessment” to the next level and makes me ponder how I could provide similar opportunities for my own students: I’m a math teacher, which makes that challenge a bit more daunting, but what an amazing thing if we could incorporate this approach across the curriculum.

    Paul Hawking
    The Challenge of Teaching Math
    Latest post:
    Putting your students to work (part 1)

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