Monday, August 21, 2006

The Messy Authenticity of Individualism

Kristin had a great post this weekend:
I push my students to question information that is "fed" to them and to listen to the weight of their own voices, yet I often find myself a hypocrite in this regard. After returning from England, I have found myself increasingly critical of American culture...I find myself sucked into a system that values the neatness and ease of homogeneity over the messy authenticity of individualism.
I think it's always been difficult to meet the needs of individuals in our industrial age, assembly line system of education - where anything outside the norm is dismissed in the name of efficiency. Teachers have always tried to meet the individual needs of their students - some with more success than others - but for all but an exceptional few the system eventually reigns them in. It just wasn't designed to meet those needs.

But I think that's changing - with a helping hand from technology. So much of what we are talking about in this staff development is just that - how best to meet the needs of all our students - and how to use technology (where appropriate) to help do that. And I'm not talking about No Child Left Behind - trying to get them to some artificially constructed benchmark that indicates "proficiency." I'm talking about really meeting their needs - even if their needs don't always mesh perfectly with standards or CSAP or NCLB.

Let me say this one more time - it's their education, not ours. Let's continue to ask ourselves the question: "What's best for our students?" The real, live, flesh and blood students that are in our classrooms right now, today. If we use that question to frame what we do each day, then I think we're doing our jobs correctly. If we too often find ourselves doing things to meet somebody else's needs, then I think we're failing.


  1. It's a major step to just be talking about it. It is nice to know that education is changing and that my generation isn't too late to benefit from it. I've already noticed teachers doing things differently in some of my classes, it must be a good thing. I think that a lot of teachers are embracing the new technology and using it to change how students can do things. I must say, I was pretty excited to see laptops in my chemistry class. I had heard about it last year, but I didn't think it would happen this soon.

  2. Well, a week into the semester, I can say I think it's going to be a good one. There are some thoughts running through my head that have been influenced hugely by The World is Flat (and Karl's prompt that we should be concerned most about what's best for students and their learning makes this seem like an appropriate time to "voice" my concerns.)
    Friedman talks about American schools' shortcomings that could be (well, probably will be) impediments to maintaining our leadership position in the world. I agree wholeheartedly about the kind of learning that we need to foster: more rigorous rote learning but DEFINITELY teaching them to use creative, upper-level thinking, when learning to USE the material they learned by rote. "Rote learning" sounds so horrible; it was treated as a bad word in my ed classes in the late '90s. However, the fact is that knowledge is the first level of Bloom's taxonomy, and learners must have a strong knowledge base before they can move up the taxonomy to higher levels of thinking and application. Maybe we aren't rigorous enough with the knowledge aspect of our curricula (Well, maybe it's more something I see in my own teaching than other disciplines, since I'm not responsible for getting the kids ready for French CSAPs or anything.)I say this not to imply that I don't have high expectations, but rather that my priorities in the last few years have leaned more toward the communication SKILLS in French, and how to encourage them to be strong critical thinkers, rather than drilling them intensely on content. I certainly could up the stakes with that kind of learning in my classes. However, it's difficult to balance those 3 crucial elements of teaching (learning the material AND how to apply it while also learning to be a sophisticated thinker.), but that's not an excuse for myself. Teaching in a constructivist way is a very effective way to present the material to students while teaching them to be strong thinkers. But, this is where my main concern comes in. I remember learning about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in my first few ed classes (which is not new info to any of you), but I was thinking about Maslow's statement that food, clothing and shelter are the most basic of needs, and if a person is lacking in these areas, how can he/she be expected to learn to the best of his/her ability? The two lowest levels of the hierarchy are called "physiological" and "safety" (no, I did NOT remember this from college - I admit I just googled it now), and that makes me think immediately of this facility. Very few of our students are worried about the most basic concerns - that they won't have food, clothing or shelter - and fortunately, most of them lead pretty safe lives. My concern is that the building - hallways AND learning spaces - doesn't provide adequate space, and even safety, for the best learning to take place. As of this fall, I have never seen the halls of this place so crowded. I'm one of the herd shuffling along to my destination, and my movements aren't even my own, just the will of the group. If I drop something, I'd have to kiss it goodbye, because there'd be no safe way for me to pick it up off the floor without getting trampled. In fact, one of my students said her flip flop came off, and she had a really hard time getting it. Forget being able to go to the restroom, a locker or the drinking fountain. It's nearly impossible to "change lanes." This situation seems extra incongruous, given the demographics of the school, too. It's such a challenge to find classrooms that are big enough to fit our burgeoning classes. This year is seems as though it's been worse than usual. This is NOT the fault of anyone who works here, just simply a side effect of the huge enrollment we have here. So, my concern is that when we have all of these shelter and safety concerns that must be dealt with first, our actual teaching becomes a secondary priority. This is a huge problem when thinking about how we'll compete with countries that are advancing, and possibly passing us by soon, in the flattening world.

  3. I'm not sure if I'm really "allowed" to post here. I was just looking at one of my teacher's blogger profiles and upon noticing that so many teachers were "team members" on this one, I got a little curious.

    I've grown up attending LPS schools and I'm not going to lie, sometimes, it is hard to feel like little more than a number in the system... In elementary school, I was always around number 21 or 22 in class, my last name being towards the end of the alphabet; I still have the same student number that I used for my lunch number drilled into the back of my brain; in middle school we started looking at printouts of our grades where we were "coded" by yet another number; and at AHS it's pretty hard not to get lost among the sheer number of students milling about the halls. Not to mention GPAs and all the other numbers you are branded with upon entering high school.

    But upon returning for my fourth and final year, things were pretty much noticeably different right from the beginning. Part of that might have to do with the simple fact that I'm now a senior, but I don't think that's entirely it. I feel like this year I'm finally expected to do more than simply regurgitate the information that I've been spoon-fed. I feel more like my education is in my hands and I can do with it what I will. And I'm going to be honest; that's so much more appealing than "this is what I want for you to learn, and this is how you're going to learn it". And again, part of that might still have to do with the fact that I'm finally mature enough to handle this.

    So I guess what I'm really trying to say here is "Thanks". You all do so much for us as your students. The future is scary, as Mr. Fisch's pp presentation clearly shows, but I feel pretty good knowing that my education has been pretty well taken care of by LPS. It feels good knowing that to you, I'm more than just a number.

  4. Becca,

    You are not only allowed to post comments here, but encouraged. Please comment again if you have something to share.

    I'm glad you feel like there is a difference this year. I'm sure some of it is due to you, but hopefully some of it is also due to the changes we've been talking about and are beginning to implement. Hopefully future students won't have to wait until Senior year to feel like more than a number.