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What is The Dysfunctional School for the Arts?

Bear in mind that The Dysfuctional School for the Arts is bit like a folk tale in that it gently changes with each retelling.  It has grown beyond toddlerhood and is now a full-fledged teenager, our mistakes do not cease with the death of our terrible twos nor have those of the dear DSA.  The growth spurts are painful, and I do believe we are in the midst of yet another.  When we were slightly younger we, the staff, referred to ourselves as family, and we meant it, quite sincerely.  A little further on down the road while experiencing some growing pains we still felt and acted as a family, but we did become somewhat frustrated with each other, as will happen in a household where people keep close quarters.  Fortunately most of us, being mature for our age, well-educated, and adept communicators, realized that all families have their own problems and coping mechanisms so that despite the fact we sometimes disagreed we were still a family, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional one.  We didn’t view dysfunction as a deficit.

We saw our dysfunction as a unique badge to wear proudly.  Our dysfunction, like the ADD diagnosis of many students and staff, was an obvious sign of creativity and not some deficit to be corrected. Dysfunction could have been used interchangeably with different. People were using the label of dysfunction as a synonym for eccentricity, unconventionality, or simply a non-traditional means of getting things done.  We were not dysfunctional in the denotative sense.  We were connotatively and smilingly dysfunctional.  This was a plight with which I could live quite happily.

But, alas, upon each age of enlightenment a darkness falls.  Whether our dark age has begun at DSA cannot be clearly determined for only hindsight is 20/20, but it is my intent within this blog to determine where DSA is at present, where it has been in the past, and to examine the future paths which lie ahead.

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?

On the Origin of Faith in Education,

Part II:

How We Limit Ourselves Through Language

“Words are in my not-so-humble opinion our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”, says the venerable Professor Albus Dumbledore of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As a result of words’ omnipresence I think their effects are often overlooked. Their power is proverbially hidden in plain sight. Because people look to language as a way to organize and process their environments and experiences it can frame entire debates. Sometimes people’s word choice, unbeknownst to them, limits their view of a concept, effectually placing blinders on the participants and narrowing the field of vision significantly.

For example, the question of whether or not U.S. schools are challenging enough, is framed in a scientific lexicon. In fact, the debate over whether U.S. schools are too easy is hemmed in by the very specific argot of Scientific Method. What’s worse is that attempting to create discussion, or reform itself, of schooling through the process of scientific method compounds the harm inflicted on our schools because it is also a misapplication of the method. (More on this in Part III.)

Imagine if we stop conducting experiments on the educational system based upon terminology related to scientific method and instead reframe our discussion in the nomenclature of the engineering design process. (More on this in Part IV.) Already the essential descriptors of the process such as; create, alternative, and redesign, widen our discourse and prompt complex, open-ended questions as opposed to the simple, closed questions. The new jargon has already moved the dialogue from closed to open.

By merely expanding the terminology within the field of science, hidden avenues for exploration are uncovered. What will happen when we further broaden the vista through the addition of artistic parlance? Remember, words are tools with power. They can be manipulated for good or evil. Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

On the Origin of Faith in Education: Part I

In an epiphany, and rather surprisingly, I  discovered the existence of something within myself which I’ve often wondered if I lacked. Faith. No worries, I shan’t be proselytizing. The irony here is that I have never considered myself to be a practitioner of any of the three most common, world religions. On the contrary, I have been and continue to be alternately: atheist or agnostic/spiritual/philosophical-with humanist/buddhist biases/pagan. Clearly, beliefs carved in stone are not something to which I often ascribe. My opinions are, generally, fluid with ebb & flow and room for adjustment based upon the examination of new/different information. Radically, today I realized that I DO have faith… in education. I also have many related reservations. Yet, however much the education system is poked and prodded by the scientific method resulting in remarkably different interpretations, I believe at its core universal education is perhaps the most valuable of our country’s treasures.

Scientific method is hailed as one of the cornerstones of reason, and often reason and faith are pitted against one another, e.g. the Theory of Evolution versus the Theory of Creationism. Typically, for me personally, reason nearly always trumps faith. In a bizarre reversal, in the case of education I find the path of reason to have broken down. Yet, I still believe the U.S. system of universal education is our country’s most important asset. All this despite the trials and tribulations She faces, and the eternal accusations leveled at Her such as; single, closed questions like, “Do Schools Challenge Our Students.” I believe if we track one of Reason’s trails across the wilds of education we will find: measurable objectives, standards, experimentation, and finally the question extruded from Scientific Method that led to the well-intentioned but ineffective reform where we began our journey.

Abstract and subjective concepts such as quality, creativity, and design are closer akin to Art as opposed to science, though they are part of the scientific lexicon as well. I think it is from art that my faith in education springs. And, it is an artistic approach to education through which we may better improve our schools.

When to Bail: Part II, or Sabbaticals Shouldn’t Just be for Professors

First of all, perhaps “bail” is not the best choice of words. Bail implies a to heck with it all sort of attitude, and certainly some people do take the all or nothing approach. However, what I’m really advocating here is that, in order to maintain sanity and so forth, teachers find avenues to change it up for themselves every few years, more of a sabbatical really.

I would recommend taking the first sabbatical after year one, then teach for three to five years and take a second sabbatical. The first year of teaching in a new setting is really a time to feel out the new digs. The second year is for the teacher to adjust things to her/his comfort level and find the perfect balance. Then year three is really just fine-tuning / enjoying the polished environment. If you’re really in the zone, why stop there; continue on through year four, maybe even five. But, after year five it is time for a re-charge! I certainly wish I would have taken one sometime in the last ten years.

Personally, I wish I would have taken the advice I offered in “When to Bail: Part I Option II” sooner. Currently I am planning two or three exit strategies. I often wonder where I would be now if I had taken a teaching holiday in a Spanish-speaking country or applied to the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps the year after my divorce. Some experts apparently recommend that one not make any significant life changes for the year following a traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one or a divorce, but I think that a year following one of the many plans outlined in the previous post might have been just the ticket. Or, maybe distraught as I was I would have fouled up an amazing opportunity, but I doubt it.

At the end of the day, I still can’t think of anything I would rather do than teach a classroom full of students. However, burn-out is pervasive for a reason, and if we want our teachers’ best efforts as a society we should plan for it rather than ignore it. And, teachers, remember it’s wonderful to care for others, but one can only help others if s/he takes care of her/himself first. It’s like those airline, oxygen masks. You can’t resuscitate anyone else if you’ve passed out yourself.

Keep up the good work and take care of yourselves out there:)

When to Bail: Part I Option II

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of stepping back and re-evaluating your first year’s work as a teacher. If grad school is not for you, why not enjoy a gap year? Typically, gap year refers to the year after high school and before college when a student backpacks, volunteers, or works abroad. I believe in Australian terms it would be a walkabout (What is an Australian walkabout?), time to reflect on and evaluate your past, present, & future paths. There are GOBS of opportunities out there for nomadic souls, and travel broadens one’s perspective at least three-fold. Amazingly blogger Lillie Marshall has compiled many great ideas at her website Man, oh man, if I had visited this website ten years ago!

Also, if you came to teaching young and are under thirty you may want to au pair for a year. Check out Unfortunately, I didn’t discover the world of au pairing until I was older than such organizations typically desire, but it looks like a great deal to me. Usually 20-40 hours of child care per week gets you a stipend and host family and meals for three, six, nine, or twelve months. The rest of the time is yours to explore your new home and culture!

A former student of mine chose to au pair in Spain immediately following high school. While the other students were applying to college she was filling out au pair applications. Because she applied early and was in no hurry to find a placement she was able to hold out for exactly what she wanted. In her case, that was a home on the beach, and that is exactly what she got! The lucky lady was placed with a family of two doctors on the beach in Valencia, Spain! They even helped her learn Spanish.

Au pair families understand that their child-care worker is also there to learn about the culture and are encouraged to foster such knowledge. So if you are in your late teens or twenties maybe au pair work is for you, for at least one year anyway. And, if you enjoy it, it’s a great way to spend future summers of your teaching career.

Bottom line? Recharge your batteries anywhere in the world your heart desires. It can only enhance your teaching and your soul. Namaste.

When to Bail: Part I Option I

The last time I read the stats, half of all teachers left the profession after their first, full-fledged year in the classroom. At the end of year five half of those who managed to stick it out flew the coop. Why? Even superheroes on speed would have trouble maintaining the energy to excel as teachers after five straight years in the classroom. As Lillie Marshal suggests, in the Huffington Post‘s education blog, Teach Plus, perhaps the key to endurance is taking time to recharge.

For those questioning whether or not to abandon their calling after year one, I highly recommend pursuing an interdisciplinary, one-year, master’s degree program for three reasons. One, it allows the novice valuable time to reflect upon that eventful, first year. Two, the second discipline provides an exit strategy if it turns out education is actually not a viable career choice while also providing additional experience for the résumé. And, three, it can be a comparably inexpensive option as long as tuition-waiver assistantships are explored.

In my case, my master’s degree-year allowed me to study both education and theatre, add to both resumes, introduce me to interdisciplinary positions in the job market, reflect upon my first year in the classroom, revise the vision of my role in future schools, and set new goals. When I finished, I chose to go back to the classroom. However, now I knew I needed to investigate the sociopolitical climate before choosing, essentially, a home. I avoided fundamentalist / extremely conservative / rural populations and opted for more diverse, open-minded, urban, liberal institutions. With experience teaching theatre (via the assistantship) and ESL (summer job) as well as licenses to teach both English and Spanish I felt like a candidate with plenty of options.

It wasn’t a cake walk, the stipend didn’t place me in the lap of luxury, but neither did it render me homeless, and all told, I’d say I came out ahead on the deal. So, if you’re ready to bail, consider a master’s degree. You may actually feel refreshed and ready to don that super hero cape one more time.

One-Size Does NOT Fit All: Great Minds

Just last Friday I published a post related to one-size-fits-all assessment so I was tickled to discover a similarly themed post in Paul Barnwell’s blog for Education Week today. What should we, the audience, glean from “Ending One-Size-Fits-All in School Scheduling” and other like-minded articles, aside from the obvious “birds of a feather” proverbial wisdom? One-Size never fits all when it comes to education!

If our aim in The United States is to turn out the best quality students, then as a nation we must be willing to contribute quality input. If, on the other hand, our aim is to “educate” the vast majority of our population merely to a degree that may allow our democracy to function properly, as I believe was the aim of the original proponents of universal education in The United States, than perhaps quality will be sacrificed for quantity. In all likelihood The United States system of education hovers between these extremes.

I believe NCLB was intended to combat the industrialist model of education which was very much in vogue. The catalytically capitalist “factory-line model” of education supposedly offered very little to be tailored to individual students and instead treated large groups of students quite homogeneously. Or, did they?

Wasn’t “tracking” simultaneously popular? What was the intent of tracking? Was the intent to pigeon-hole students? Or, was the impetus of “tracking” to better accommodate students who were at various points in their educational journey and thereby had different needs? Different, different, different. . . Why does that sound so familiar? Differentiation! That’s what it reminds me of.

Still, to be fair, differentiation is far more individualized than tracking was. However, I often wonder if the reason educators didn’t move directly to the differentiation model in the first place was because the infrastructure necessary to support such a move was not present.

Personally, as a high school teacher, I have far less help in the classroom than my own high school teachers had. What with case precedents related to student privacy and working in a non-union school (Thus, not entitled to the one million dollars in liability coverage from the NEA) it is unwise for me to allow students to trade and grade papers, have a student aide grade papers, even to have students pass graded papers back to classmates is a bit worrisome in this litigious day and age. We do have a teachers’ aide the school has hired to help everyone on our floor which generally breaks down to two periods of help a week; however, said aide is often claimed by administrators or semi-administrators for help with various projects so the likelihood of actually having weekly help is often nil, especially by year’s end.

I often wonder, if we had a system more akin to that of Scotland with a Head Teacher and a Deputy Teacher, if teachers in The United States would be better equipped to handle multiple Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Of course, I really don’t truly understand how that system functions; I just watch a fair amount of BBC. But, it’s always struck me as a rather pragmatic to have a minimum of two teachers in a classroom.

The point of the aforementioned tangents is simply that one of the first things I learned as an undergraduate in education is that I should become accustomed / resigned to unfunded education mandates. So do we do the most efficient job possible with the least amount of support? Of course, there isn’t really a choice is there? Or, do we demand the foundational materials necessary to produce the highest quality students possible? The choice is really society’s. How much are you willing to put in? We get what we give; do we not?

Is Assessment in The United States A. too objective B. too subjective C. flawed or D. all of the above?

Assessment in The United States system of education is just as flawed as its most iconic component, the multiple choice exam. Part of Dana Goldstein’s article in Slate last week explored the new push for standardized testing in the arts.  Now multiple choice tests and objective forms of assessment certainly have their place; however, why on earth do we, as a nation, continue to argue over whether assessment method A, B, or C is best? Haven’t we learned from history yet? Remember the phonics versus whole language debate? What was the best method of teaching English to youngsters in this country? Oh wait, that’s right! There was not any one tool that was best.  It was a combination of methods which proved most successful.

Goldstein asks, “[c]an such a test measure creativity—or is creativity not the point?” As an educator, the first thing I ask myself when planning a new unit is: what do I want students to be able to do in the end?  What is the goal? The answer to this question determines what types of assessment I will use.  If I am teaching introductory material such as necessary theatre vocabulary then, yes, perhaps a typical multiple choice quiz might just fit the bill. However, if my end goal is to encourage students to develop their creativity a much more involved and subjective assessment would be in order.  And so, the multiple choice section of the Florida standardized test will not test creativity, but it may determine whether students are proficient is the basic vocabulary necessary to navigate more advanced levels of the given discipline. That said, if these simple tests of basic proficiency are not accompanied by more subjective and challenging assessments of complementary skills within the field, students will find themselves at a grave disadvantage.

Typically, I teach high school freshman and sophomores so I have in the last two years begun to glimpse the train wreck that is NCLB, or as a dear, departed colleague liked to call it: No Teacher Left Behind. Along with a general shift in assessment practices NCLB has also contributed to how we present concepts to our students. The key word is differentiation. It’s really not a new concept. I look at it as more of a rebranding. But, the up side to this double-edged sword is that, as a discipline we have been not just aware but downright vigilant about tailoring our curricula in myriad fashions because one-size does not fit all. We have managed to grasp the idea that one-size-fits-all learning is ineffective. Therefore, one-size-fits-all assessment is likewise ineffectual.

Linking Student Acheivement and Teacher Pay

Reading an article by Dana Goldstein published last week in Slate, I find it difficult to move beyond the first paragraph without that irksome welling of indignation that often, in recent years, accompanies news articles, podcasts, and so forth related to the field of education. As a licensed teacher, still working in the classroom after ten plus years, I have observed a great deal of change in schooling. One of the changes in my little microcosm of the world that most perplexes me I have watched become progressively more worrisome over the course of the last two to three years.

Perhaps student self-entitlement and accountability are not new obstacles, but they have been rearing their ugly heads again. And, isn’t it even more difficult to combat them when the U.S. society at large discusses and in some cases already evaluates and pays teachers based upon “…how well they ‘grow’ student achievement…” (Goldstein, 2012.)? Doesn’t this strike other people out there as an oxymoron. The term is student achievement; is it not? If students are achieving why aren’t we paying them?

Why don’t we pay students? No. Really. Please, hear me out. In Ohio, for example, the state allocation of funding per pupil is approximately $5,000. Now I’m a firm believer that free, universal education is a privilege which should not be taken for granted so I’m not suggesting we pay students anything like minimum wage to enjoy this stunning asset that our forefathers, such as Noah Webster, chose to leave as part of their legacy to our nation. However, as Americans we are not only quintessentially disposed to democracy, but also, to capitalism. Let’s face it, incentives generally work.  What if we took 10-20% of that per pupil funding from the state, the same percentage one would use to tip in the service industry, and provided it as an incentive.  Perhaps $250-500 per semester for maintaining a 3.25 gpa? Who knows, mayhap down the road that cash will translate into technology for school, young entrepreneurial ventures, or books for university – as our free, universal educational system does not extend beyond the twelfth grade?

Is this notion crazy, or is it merely the radical shift that might kick our collective butts into gear? Personally, I believe teachers are one of the most intrinsically motivated, non-materialistic segments of The United States. Not recognizing this fact is an all too common faux pas. Teacher pay and benefits should be considerable not because of how their students perform, but because of how teachers perform. Teachers work many hours, year-round to affect as much positive change and influence as they can. They have the best interests of their students in mind, and they do all that is humanly possible to help those students succeed.  If we’re going to offer incentives, why not offer them where they will make a difference? Help teachers to help those who may be more susceptible to extrinsic motivation.  Frankly, incentive pay is a demoralizing slap in the face of teachers.  Think it over, along with all the potential, economic layers of growth that might accompany extrinsic, incentivized learning.