An Educator’s Manifesto: Part 1

“A manifesto is a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government. A manifesto usually accepts a previously published opinion or public consensus and/or promotes a new idea with prescriptive notions for carrying out changes the author believes should be made. It often is political or artistic in nature, but may present an individual’s life stance.” – Wikipedia

Arts Integration, Global Education and Project Based/Expeditionary Learning are, in my opinion, three of the most valuable strategies educators can employ to ensure the academic and social/emotional growth of their students. These three perspectives on curriculum design and direct instruction are rooted in student experience and driven by curiosity and exploration.   When merged together, these instructional lenses become powerful tools for teaching; tools that when utilized to their fullest potential can incite deep learning that resonates quickly and can last a lifetime. The terms themselves are also trendy titles by which people label their teaching styles these days. Many teachers will tell you that they receive workshop notifications and conference invites regularly from service providers begging their for their ear and their money in exchange for training and ongoing professional development in these areas. But is this kind of training worth it? How do the teachers benefit from incorporating these strategies into their daily instruction? Should these educational perspectives influence policy making? And (most importantly) what do these teaching concepts offer to the students themselves?   Can Arts Integration, Global Education and Expeditionary/Project Based Learning become foundations upon which we build equitable education systems in the future? In this philosophical declaration of mine, I plan to unpack the aforementioned terms and share with you why I am such an advocate of these instructional strategies.

But… Before I do…  Let’s address the big (GINORMOUS) white elephants in the room.  Standards Based Instruction and Assessment are at the core of many policy debates largely because they are believed to influence and even determine issues of equity in today’s schools. And since I will agree that you get when you measure, let us talk about what we should measure and how we should measure it.

First, given today’s climate of over testing, all classroom content must, must be rooted in academic standards. Without standards identifying the projected outcomes for academic growth, explorations can often go astray. Furthermore, the schools and students that I would argue need this kind of work the most – those living in underserved communities – cannot spare a second’s time for anything that is not proven to directly support student achievement. Therefore I support the use of academic standards in creative explorations, especially for our highest need schools. Educators in these schools are evaluated, via the assessment of their students, repeatedly throughout the year. In many cases teacher pay is inextricably linked to their delivery of standards based content as illustrated by testing data. Testing can often absorb more than 13 weeks of teaching and learning time per year; that is more than one third of the school year just for testing! Here in Colorado, for example, we have several state mandated tests; some of them include TCAP, CMAS, and ACCESS. Then there are generally three INTERIM tests required by the district throughout the year, each bringing the learning to a standstill while tests are being administered. Now there are also STAR tests and SMI tests; and while both are conducted digitally, each requires one-on-one time between the teachers and the students.   Suffice to say, testing is very time consuming.  Given this landscape of (test) results oriented instruction, if it does not push the students further and further down the line of academic achievement, there is no room for it in the classroom.

Gone are the days of an “art for arts sake” philosophy, there is simply no room (and often, no money) for it. And excursions taken beyond the school walls must be blatantly purposeful, linking to academic standards or, alternatively, the school’s Positive Behavior Incentive Support (PBIS) plan. The joy of learning must be discovered through the delivery of a standards-based curriculum; and for many teachers who have been cycled through the public school system and encouraged to teach to the test (yes, I’ve said it), keeping the joy can be a big challenge.  I argue that adopting Arts Integration strategies, Global Learning benchmarks and Expeditionary/Project Based Learning experiences into the classroom are three ways to keep instruction rooted in required content while also spinning the content on its head and providing the students with a new lens by which they can view and interact with the world, thereby bring the joy back into the teaching and learning process. Further, each of these three strategies provides teachers with avenues to diversify instruction. In this way our more advanced learners can go further and deeper, and our students performing under grade level can ground their learning in experience, which research suggests makes the longest lasting impressions.

Now that we have discussed what we should measure (academic standards), let’s discuss how we should measure it.

To begin this highly contested discussion I want to remind the reader that not everyone learns in the same way. According to research conducted and inspired by the revered Dr. Howard Gardner, there are seven distinct intelligences. Gardner argued that, “we are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves.” Knowing this, it is unreasonable and irrational, in my opinion, to assess student learning in a uniform way. Standardized tests, or tests and quizzes administered via paper and pen, should not be the only way we determine if a student has truly met the standards we have aimed for!

I had the great pleasure of working with an organization called the Harmony Project a few years back. This group of forward thinking educators came to understand the need to develop assessment tools that are applicable to the multiple intelligences described above. As an organization whose focus it is to make integrated arts accessible to all children, they used the term “Demonstration of Learning” to describe a modified and active assessment tool/activity teachers (and their partnering artists) can use to evaluate student learning. Children, for example, who may have explored the life cycles of a butterfly through movement and dance, were able to demonstrate their comprehension of content in a physical way. Once the understanding had infiltrated their bodies, these kinesthetic learners were able to verbally express learned content in a clear and significant way.

Another way of describing a nontraditional and non-uniform mode of assessment was coined by some Harvard graduates at Project Zero. These pioneers use the term “Make the Learning Visible”. To make the learning visible, students and teachers must agree to a rigorous collection of data at various points throughout the year. In this way growth can be observed and tracked. This might seem like a lot of work, but given today’s landscape of digital learning and sharing sites, it really isn’t that challenging. For example, the work I did at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford provided me the opportunity to work closely with the very talented Mrs. Robbi Makely. She was our school’s technology extraordinaire, and with her help we were able to post student projects on our school’s wikipage. (This site is still active today and can be accessed from the school’s website, although the program was discontinued a year ago.) Utilizing a wikipage allowed teachers to easily post demonstrations of learning (videos, articles written, audio clips, photographs, etc.) regularly. Some teachers I know prefer to create sites on Google for their classrooms. Another of my favorite public platforms for sharing student work (portfolios) can be found at the Asia Society’s “ning” site. Through their education branch, the International Studies Schools Network, this organization has launched a brilliant resource for educators where classrooms around the world can document, save, track and share student projects. Regardless of preference, it is clear that technology has made the ability to track student growth extremely accessible even to the newest of techies. It is far easier today than it was ten years ago to “make the learning visible”.

So that about wraps up Part 1 of my manifesto. Moving forward I plan to delve deeper into the themes of Arts Integration, Global Education and Project Based/Expeditionary Learning. (I also plan to tell you why I have lumped the last two items together as one, because I know that doing so has really gnawed at the nerves of a few educators who prefer otherwise. –wink-) I also plan to broaden the scope of the discussion, and consider how these areas of instruction can and should affect the teachers, students and even public policy.

Before I close, however, I want to share with you some of my work that was recently featured on the Project Explorer website. This organization is making great strides in the realm of Global Education. As a contributing writer with Project Explorer, I root interdisciplinary and creatively integrated lesson plans into Math and English Language Arts Common Core State Standards as well as the National Science Education Standards. Please take a moment and check them/us out! (http://projectexplorer.org/teachers/)

Until Next Time,

tamera

Advertisements