Wednesday, December 2, 2015

When Should Teachers Get Out of the Way?

In response to schools cutting art programs in Portland, the parents at the elementary school my son attends (Glencoe) created a fantastic program called Art Infusion. About once a month, 4-8 classroom parents teach an art lesson to the students in their kid's class. The lessons are canned (fortunately!), but they're pretty good.

Having more flexibility last year (I was writing teacher resources instead of teaching), I was able to attend most and I was really impressed by the program: it increases community involvement, it adds more art, and there are usually more-than-enough parents- so that even if we don't know what we're doing, it goes fine. I don't know for sure how the teachers feel. I would guess that even though they don't love the feeling of losing the class time that day and having so many outsiders in their room, they see the benefits. (And what teacher can't use an hour or so extra of planning time!)

But there is something I noticed that did make me question aspects of my teaching, and teaching pedagogy in general. My son struggles with many aspects of school. He gets frustrated easily and despises math. But he is a fantastic artist. The work he produces on Art Infusion days is pretty good, but not anywhere close to as good as the drawing and paintings he does on a nightly basis.

At one level, this doesn't matter, and is certainly not to imply that Art Infusion should change. He loves Art Infusion days (and does not love most days at school). Also, the lessons are not just about creating art. We try to connect them to an art concept (using collage, drawing perspective, etc.) and a bigger concept (for example a depiction of the sea was connected to the decline of coral).

But the observation is still an important one. What he creates with absolutely no guidance is much better than the work he does after a lesson. If the goal was solely to make the best art, they should provide him with materials and time and just get out of the way. Are there times while I am teaching that I should keep this in mind?

In my years of teaching middle school, I have mostly learned the opposite lesson- that almost anything can be taught, and that students need much more structure and guidance than I first thought. Everything from providing outlines to class brainstorms to showing explicitly how to do something I would assume is common sense, has definitely led to better papers.

But I think there are areas where I and other teachers could get out of the way more. The most obvious area is in creative writing. In graduate school I remember hearing the idea that writing workshops are a better way to tap into kids' creativity than always prompting them. I have never taught LA, so I'm not sure how this goes in practice, but I have to imagine that there is a lot of truth in it. My son right now is filling up his writing journal with the crazy stories in his head. The more prompts the worse. But I also assume that it's more complicated than just letting kids write whatever they want. Perhaps a structure that provides both? Like a lesson on descriptive words, but then they write whatever they want? (But you have a few prompts saved away for the kids who get stuck?)

It also might be helpful to create more projects that engender this. For years I have done a project about the Maya in which their job is to create a product that includes Maya achievements and shows a possible way they could have fallen. Their presentation style can be however they want (video, letters, story, cartoon panels, etc.). This has led to really amazing, creative projects. This year I added something similar after a unit on the importance of rivers. Again I was clear about the goal (show the many uses of rivers), but open about the product (cartoon panels, diagrams, story, scientific essay, etc.). The result were great, as students went to their strengths. And by not giving them too much structure, most took it farther than I think they would have.

The lesson, in my opinion, is NOT to just let them do whatever they want all the time. But I am going to keep asking myself throughout the year: is this a time that by getting out of the way they will end up doing better work?

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