Monday, November 24, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing

I suppose I should be grateful that working at an independent school, I don’t have to jump through the hoops of the next top-down educational policy. But still it hurts my heart to see all the time and energy wasted on something that will accomplish exactly nothing. Teachers suffer, children suffer, culture suffers when we are mandated to adopt someone else’s fantasy of effective education. Even if it’s a good one. I’ve been a crusader for the dynamic, life-changing, child-friendly pedagogy of Orff Schulwerk all my life, but I never would consider that all teachers be required to adopt it to their field and prove it by checking off lists. Anything worth its salt requires hard work, intelligence, vision, none of which can be acquired from the top down.

You can’t legislate intelligence. You can’t mandate creativity. You can’t grow craftsmanship simply by saying what it is. My own field of Orff Schulwerk requires a radical transformation of the teachers earned by years and years of training the body, challenging the mind, unleashing the imagination and opening the heart. It asks for a stripping away of the ignorant, the ineffective, the unnecessary, to remember the shining common core of human intelligence and imagination that gets clouded over by much of our schooling. No transformation occurs by reading a few national standards and trying out a few pre-packaged lesson plans. As Thoreau warned us:

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?”

Each education fashion that comes hurtling down the pike— now the Common Core—requires teachers to wear new clothes chosen by others without any realistic expectation of the teacher’s own transformation— or practice designed to transform. True Orff practice doesn’t dictate your fashion, in fact, encourages you to choose your own wardrobe. Plain or fancy, bright or earth-tones, none of that matters much as long as there’s an authentic thinking teacher with a beating heart and lively imagination underneath. Anything less than this is just paying the coins to Caesar that rightly belong to God.

A few questions to consider before playing the Common Core game. And if you have to play it, ask these questions of those requiring you to do so.

1.     Tone: Is this respecting my training and intelligence as a teacher? Is it assuming that I know how to craft my lessons, assess my students, understand my field? If it really wants to help me— because we can all use help to be better teachers—shouldn’t I be in conversation with “it” about what help I precisely need?

2.     Language: Why does this sound like a “Teaching for Dummies” manual instead of elevating me with inspired language and poetic insight? Can I read this to my kids? Is it trivializing and demeaning my work by making me check off little boxes labeled MCC 1.2? Is it acknowledging the living, breathing spirit of children in its language or sounding more like directions to make a pre-assembled model airplane?

3.     Assessment: Would I have a carpenter re-build my kitchen and at the end of each work day, have him fill out a sheet like: “Put tools away correctly.” “Hammered the nails straight?” Does any other field of work have these kinds of national standards, making a big deal out of the most common sense practices and simplest forms of knowledge? And speaking of assessment and accountability, where is the test to show that such educational policy is effective in its fantastic hopes that children will now learn everything we teach them? Where is the documentation? What are the standards of measurement? Is there one shred of evidence that any national policy instituted in the past 14 years has effectively improved education? (I can think of thousands of testimonies about the ways it has failed children, destroyed teachers’ enthusiasm and passion, dumbed down schools and more. Anyone out there paying attention to such assessments?)

4.     Time:  Is this a good use of my time as a teacher? Shouldn’t I be using the time to read the great educational thinkers? To be planning lessons that lead children to the edge of discovery? To be furthering my own practice and deepen my understanding in my field? Is any of this stimulating my intelligence? Awakening my creativity? Opening my heart? Guiding my practice with loving attention? Do I emerge refreshed after jumping through these hoops or exhausted?

5.     Qualifications: Though initiated by government bureaucrats far away from the classroom, Common Core did have teachers involved in every step of the review. But who were these teachers? What vision was guiding their work beyond the expectation that every child should know x, y and z? Easy to sit in a room and fantasize about the ideal outcome, but all of us teachers have had a sobering reality check when we enter the classroom and don’t find perfectly behaved children so fascinated with each nugget of knowledge we impart. Fine to have an end-goal of some national standard, but so what? You don’t just put “creativity” up on the board and presto! your kids are creative! Where is there any acknowledgment in the Common Core about the real nature of the beast? Where is there anything that says out loud that this is difficult work and not to be accomplished by paint-by-number pre-packaged lessons? Where is the deep vision that grapples with the true nature of the human being magnified manifold in the innocence of children?

Education is just too damn important to waste our time on anything less than inspired pedagogy. If you agree with H.G. Wells that we’re in “a race between education and catastrophe,” we can’t afford to get distracted by turning down the wrong paths.  Let’s stop fooling ourselves. The Emperor has no clothes. This is much ado about nothing. 

(WL 1.4—Students will understand all literary references.)

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