Losing the straightjacket

I often tell my students that they shouldn’t let school get in the way of their learning. They are baffled as they tend not to separate the two ideas. When I tell them not to let school get in the way of their learning it comes down to a few items: their focus on a grade, their need to follow instructions (when detailed, step-by-step instructions are not present, they tend to freak out), passively waiting for the teacher (me) to pass down information that will be on the test. This list could go on, but I figure you have an idea of what I am talking about.

So many of us are stuck in that place where we know what is important for our students, yet we are judged on various scores that have little to do with what is really important. So the question comes is how can I teach the skills I know my students need, yet get them ready for the mandated assessments that the system needs.

One teacher I worked with many years ago said that if you teach them well, they will do fine on the tests. I love that idea, and it has stuck with me for a long time. There are times when I figure I am on to something good. And then those times when I really want to crawl under a dark porch and rock myself to sleep. But that is what happens when we take risks.

I have written several pieces since I started this blog regarding PBL in my classes. While not that answer, PBL is part of the solution to the question of having students engage directly with essential skills, yet address the needs to do well on mandated assessments. It is part of that good teaching of which my friend spoke so many years ago. Recently, Forbes published a fantastic article about the difference between IB and AP. I teach both and have to say I much prefer IB over AP, but that is another topic. In the article, Peter Greene drops this beauty:

Imagine a test designed to energize instruction rather than strap it into a straightjacket. That would be cool. Inspired teachers lead to inspired students– what an idea.

Let that sit in your head for a moment. I wonder, however, if it is more than only the test that puts so much of teaching and learning in a straightjacket. Let’s pull our view back from the test to the idea of school. The idea of school as an institution places much student thinking and teaching in a straightjacket. So much that students and teachers are not as inspired as they could be. When students set their sights on the grade, on the GPA, on the test score, because the teacher’s teaching is focused on the grade, on the GPA, on the test score, creative inspiration on both ends is harnessed.

So I begin this year with this mindset: What can I do to make sure that my teaching is not in a straightjacket and thus student learning in my classes is not in a straightjacket as well? I worked hard last year on incorporating PBL in my classes, this year will see that amped up with a stronger emphasis on keeping my students more fully engaged via inquiry and design thinking. This year, as with last, I am teaching the entire spectrum of ability levels. I have IB and AP, along with those kids whose acceptance of school is tenuous at best. Both ends of the spectrum struggle to take their thinking out of the straightjacket for a myriad of other reasons, many of which I hope to explore this school year in order to let go of the straightjacket, both mine and theirs.

I want to close with the title of my website and what it means. So much of what we do in our lives, we do with a safety net of sorts. I have always felt that teachers need to practice what we teach and preach. I preach the gospel of reflection and creative, critical thought through writing. I want my students to take intellectual risks with their thinking. I want them to think without a harness. What a sham if I didn’t do the same.

What about you? What is your goal for the year? How do you go about practicing what you teach?

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