Friday, December 7, 2012

Seeking relevance

For some number of years, I have assessed my students' understanding of the Enlightenment by having them write an essay on the question, "Are we Enlightened yet?" After reading several hundred versions of "no," and reading several hundred papers that followed very similar formats, I got bored.

This year, I asked students to analyze the relevance of the Enlightenment, and opened the doors to them to figure out how best to present that analysis. Two students wrote papers and some did oral presentations using both PowerPoint and Prezi. These were predictable responses. I also got a news/interview show, complete with outtakes; two Tumblrs (here's one of them); an analysis of articles from the front pages of major news websites; a rap(!); and, my favorite, a sock-puppet conversation between Rousseau and Hobbes. We sat on the floor to watch it while they performed behind a big piece of cardboard.

While a few of my students worried more about their project than gaining understanding of the Enlightenment, most of them got a great deal more out of this year's assessment than other students have gotten in the past. They were able to talk about the major thinkers by name, quote them, and then relate those old ideas to what is happening in the world around them. And they did all that in ways that kept their creativity flowing, that challenged them appropriately, and that amused and educated their classmates. This was not a great example of true Project-Based Learning, but it was a step in the right direction, and I will have more assignments like this in the future.

So what has prevented me from doing an assignment in this way in the past? Fear? Laziness? The need to have them write more five-paragraph essays? The desire to grade those essays?

None of those is a worthwhile reason to keep going with the status quo.

Because this all started with the Enlightenment, I'll end with a quote from Kant's excellent summary of the movement. "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this immaturity when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another."(Kant, "What Is Enlightenment?")

Have resolution and courage to try something different! Give your students the reins and go along for the ride--they can bring you to some pretty great places.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lengthening the school year

There is a lot of buzz in the educational world today because of the news that some districts in five states will experiment with lengthening the amount of time students spend in school each year. Some commentators take the position that adding more time to a broken system is not the best answer to the country's educational woes. Supporters of the programs laud their flexibility, in that each participating district will be able to design exactly how the time gets added.

I have not heard mention, however, of a calendar change that would bring us out of the agricultural age for which our school year was designed and into the 21st century in which less than 2% of Americans are farmers. Sir Ken Robinson famously addressed that issue here.

So, knowing that

  • we no longer need a summer vacation for all our farm children to help out;
  • adolescent children's brains prune about 20% of their synaptic connections, thus making them forget what is not repeatedly used;
  • we need to teach our students more in terms of both material and skills than our 20th-century forebears;
  • there is general agreement that we are in need of radical educational restructuring,
Why aren't we discussing having a school calendar that uses the entire year?

Here's my proposal:
  1. First term meets from January 15-April 15. Vacation from April 16-May 14.
  2. Second term meets from May 15-August 15. Vacation from August 16-September 14
  3. Third term meets from September 15-December 15. Vacation from December 16-January 14.
This would give us shorter vacations to enhance retention, provide more school days to enlarge our curricula, and create an updated school calendar that better fits with the times.