Sunday, October 31, 2010

Privileging Beautiful Work: Give Change a Chance

I love how story informs story.  Last week two things happened in the space of three hours that I want to connect here. Each involves teachers, projects, and students. The first takes place off site, not at the high school I have been writing about in former posts, but it does involve the work at that high school. I was at a meeting and present was a parent of a high school student.  This parent, a small group of educators and I were discussing Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. The parent had commented that her child was in one of the American Studies classes at the high school and was loving it.  She characterized the class and its teachers as being outstanding.  She said her child values the class, as does she. The parent also said that her child was very disappointed after working to create a digital project and learning that the final grade was a B-. As I listened to the parent I thought about the evolution that is necessary as teachers and students shift from more fast-paced product oriented classrooms to studio-based classrooms. The shift between completing work to crafting beautiful work is an uneasy road.

The second story happened after I had worked for 2 hours with tenth grade students in one of the American Studies course.  If you remember these students were going to make images based on a question they wanted to research concerning youth, Holden Caufield, and Manhattan.  Some of these students found expression through the creation of slide shows and single images they had taken while in NYC. I took heart when in the middle of the 2-hour block students refused a break in order to keep working.  The energy in the room increased I noticed as I helped students begin to see potential in their work. I noticed that when I stopped talking as we would review a collection of images, they began to take over and suggest which of the works were stronger given their intentions.  So, I could have posted the work that had been completed, but then the understory which I believe is more important might not have been made: beautiful work requires varying amounts of time and the cultural shift in schools to privilege making beautiful work is a revolution. 

Variable Amounts of Time
Having composed complex and beautiful work with students in former classes I thought about the issue of variable time and the necessary and difficult space we must occupy as a high school culture shifts from one that did not privilege beautiful work to one that may be learning how to do so.  It is the learning how to do so stage that is so uncomfortable given its ambiguity. With the former emphasis on assignment and compliance, there is no ambiguity. The teacher sets the conditions of the work and students honor that contract by completing the said work in the amount of time given.  Beautiful work requires something decidedly different.

Ron Berger writes:
When I was a student in public school I turned in final draft work every hour, every day. Work was generally done in one draft, and we kept cranking it out and passing it in. Even if we cared about quality there wasn't much we could do: we needed to get things done and passed in.
One of the first things a school or classroom can do to improve the quality of student work is to get off this treadmill.  This doesn't mean an end to deadlines—the real world is full of deadlines—but rather a clear distinction between rough research, rough drafts, and finished, polished final draft work.  It means final drafts may take days or weeks to complete. It means a different type of pressure: not just pressure to turn in enough work but pressure to produce something of value...
Students need to know from the outset that that quality means rethinking, reworking, and polishing. They need to feel that they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board (pp. 87, 90).

As a teacher, one way I managed the challenge of occasioning beautiful student work inside a largely traditional school was to engage students in four or five different project-based work situations during the first 6 weeks of school and then asked them to commit to bringing one product from draft to polished work for publication.  Unlike Ron Berger I never worked in a school where the entire faculty was committed to the goal of beautiful work.  As such, I often had to help students shift from being compliant to caring deeply about the work they produced.  I cannot adequately represent the level of fear that accompanies such work.  Students who had been compliant and successful via the awarded grade felt discomfort. They had played the game well and had been rewarded and this shift left them without familiar landmarks.  Students who had "failed" and been failed did not believe in their own capacity to learn or in my capacity to actually teach.  Small, quick and easy successes followed by more in-depth one-to-one conferring/critiquing seemed to help each of these situations greatly.  But I do not want to misrepresent. Often for every step forward there was some backtracking. Assessment happened alongside learning, not at  an "end" of the work.  This deliberate feedback helped to ease student (and parental) worry as I was able to convey places inside the work where a student was successful, as well as specific places where a student needed to work harder and then craft with that student ways of doing so. Be deliberate and weather this is all I can offer. The transformation is significant.   

As the school year progressed, the projects were co-determined by students and me,  and by the end of the year most students had taken over the responsibility for defining their project work.  The nature of the projects were based on student passions and woven into those passion projects (thanks JM for a way of characterizing this work) were skills, dispositions, and strategies I occasioned and at times directly taught. This is not to say that all of the work we did found direct expression in projects, but it is to say that the whole class work we did, as well as small group, and individual work, accomplished three types of work:
  1. Some lessons served as seed ideas for larger projects.
  2. Some lessons helped students to return to projects and work on the hard aspects of the work—the places where deliberate practice were required. (Note: See David Perkins's Making Learning Whole, chapter 3 for more on this).
  3. Some lessons helped students to critique and reflect on their completed projects and establish new and/or revised goals.
The measurement was influenced not only by the finished work, but also the progress made against established goals agreed upon by each student and me.  Public exhibition and publication (beyond the classroom/school) helped us to understand that there could only be "A" work or work that still needed to be revised.

Throughout this process, critique occurred.  I think because I worked from the perspective of studio art, the idea of group and individual critique was familiar. Years later I appreciated reading Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Thinking, authored by  Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberley Sheridan in 2007. Their classroom organization of the lecture, students at work and the critique (whole group and individual) would have helped me to better do the work I intended and struggled to do. I mention the text now as it might benefit some who are reading this.

Beautiful Work as Revolution

The calls for school reform at local, state, and national levels are so fast, so furious, at times so mean-spirited, and often sadly misinformed that I find it hard to catch my breath these days. If we step back and think of school reform as an exercise in making beautiful work, the tenor and landscape of the potential redesign shifts. The American Studies courses I referenced in this post are incomplete having begun a mere 8 weeks ago and they are examples of beautiful work in progress.  There is an excitement about these classes that is expressed by students.

For beautiful work of lasting value to be a goal of schooling, our expectations of what beautiful and excellence looks/sounds like, the amount of time required to occasion beautiful work of lasting value, and what is let go in order for such work to be composed represents critical conversations. It is the letting go that is so difficult and wrought with emotion and political positioning.  For letting go of X means that we are letting go of something someone else most certainly values.

Whereas, it is comforting to know that some where I work are engaged in these conversations, regardless of the politics and positioning that always takes place within institutions, it is also difficult to represent a measure of change in light of fear.  For every voice that is representing the possibility of change there is a more insidious voice attempting to maintain the status quo often by inciting fear, exaggeration, and misinformation. Last June I had occasion to speak one-to-one with Larry Rosenstock from High Tech High. He gave me some advice about making change that I am attempting to recall each day: Make something beautiful and it will attract.  I am hoping for the time to do so with others, but worry that may not be possible given these times.

I was thinking about what is needed to ensure the development of the redesign of a high school based on a concept of beautiful work.  In today's NY Times, there is a story about the Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity and or Fear" in Washington D.C.  At the rally, Carol Newmyer handed out bumper stickers that read: Give change a chance.

If only I had a few hundred of Newmyer's bumper stickers to hand out to those who are oppositional. Imagine an entire school community who replaced My Child is an Honors Student bumper stickers with one that read, Give Change a Chance.

Talk about a revolution...

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