The check box syndrome and why we value the process over the product

A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton. I hold season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (a great value, actually) and this season’s package included Hamilton. For the past two years, Felicia and I have been to many shows and this one seemed a bit more crowded and busy than normal. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was as we had been to many other sold out shows since we started going on a regular basis.

Before the show, there was a larger than normal number of people taking selfies (any picture taking in the theater is forbidden). Mind you, these were not your run of the mill selfies. They made sure they covered all of their bases to prove where they were. They had selfies holding the program. They had selfies with the stage in the background. They had selfies with anything Hamilton in there.

And I asked in my head, how many of these people were at the show so they could do the metaphorical check list of things to do before one turns in this mortal coil. I wondered how many people that evening missed out on the full, honest experience of going to a show in order to check going to Hamilton off their list. As my classes tend to be on my mind more often than not, I wondered how many of my AP students are in the AP class in order to check taking AP English off their list and end up missing out on the experience of completing a project or a class.

If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you have been rushed past the Mona Lisa. In doing so, perhaps you missed the Titian piece hanging behind it (this from the days when she was not in her own room). When we do something because it is what we are supposed to do, we often miss out on the honesty of the experience. By honesty of the experience, I mean that idea of taking it all in, doing something because we truly want to, not because it is what we are supposed to do. When I wrote my post regarding colonization, part of the question in my mind is if my students take my AP class because that is what they are supposed to do, they don’t seek the experience of growth, they seek the badge of AP. They seek the credential, the grade. All of this takes that metaphor of colonization a bit further.

This harkens back to my struggle with grades and grading. I have been working with my students this year to focus on the process and not the product. And for many students (and teachers) this is a tremendous leap in thinking and understanding (again, for both students and teachers). They have been brought up in a system that focuses primarily on the end product and the content. I am working the help my students realize that their education should be more about the process and the skill acquisition, not the product or the grade.

This is brought up by George Couros who quotes A.J. Juliani and John Spencer’s book Empower:

Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.

This is where focusing on process and 21st century skills comes into play. By keeping our students and teaching focused on these two items, the hope is that students will see that school has relevancy beyond the classroom door. While I freely admit to my students they will never, ever write a literary analysis beyond the confines of a classroom (unless they become English professors or literary critics), they will, however, use the reasoning and critical analysis required to complete that writing throughout their lives in any endeavor (I will engage my students who work at Wal-Mart into role playing with me as the customer and they are helping me to decide a product. The rest of the class will explain the deductive and critical thinking skills the student went through to compare and contrast products). The same goes for math. The same goes for history.

Ask yourself as a teacher, what are the skills your students need to complete an activity and where are those skills used beyond your content and your classroom. How are those skills necessary in the process?

If we focus on skills and process, I hope that no class becomes a check box for a student. I hope that when they leave my class, they realize that it was about the experience. I hope that they are willing to look around when in the midst of checking a box to realize that there is so much more happening around them. As nifty as it was to see the founding documents at the National Archive this past summer, it was so much more fun to try and find those damn eagles placed around the room (I think Felicia and I missed one or two before we were forced out of the room).

What are some ideas you have in helping your students focus on the process? What do you do to focus your classes on the process and not the product? Let us know in the comments.

Gamer culture

Currently, I am taking a class to get my certification in teaching ESL kids. Here is an essay I wrote for the class. The topic of the essay is about dealing with culture shock. Rather than go the normal route, I decided to write about my introduction into gamer culture through World of Warcraft. Happy reading!


A friend of mine who is more than half Sioux told me that a person who speaks two languages is two people, it is an expression he learned from his grandfather. Travis told me this during a set break when I was sitting in on guitar with his band. That line of his has stuck with me since he laid it out there for me and the universe to hear. He used it to illustrate the significance of having been raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation speaking Sioux and English and the struggles he had when he would visit family who lived off the reservation. I have processed this idea over the years, and I feel that stage four of culture shock (Brown, 1982) gives it the foundational understanding I have struggled with since that night: it is through language that one can be fully acculturated and can be both the person in this culture and that culture. I have said many times that after a few months totally immersed in French culture that anyone, French or American, would have had a difficult time in recognizing that I was American. However, what’s more is this culture transition from shock to assimilation is just as significant in my introduction and foray into gamer culture.

I don’t quite remember the year, but I remember the sensation of logging into World of Warcraft for the first time. It was not unlike going to a new city or country. I was ‘surrounded’ by new sights, new languages, new sounds. When a player enters a massive, multiplayer, online game (MMO) such as World of Warcraft for the first time, he or she enters into a new world and new culture. A world full of virtual ‘newness’ that can be so overwhelming to the ‘noob.’ I remember feeling the “excitement and euphoria” that one often feels when entering a new culture (Brown, 1982). While there are many MMOs and video games out there, there is a common culture and language at the foundation of gamer culture.

I wandered this new world and I began to feel a sense of forlornness. In all MMOs, there are manners in which players can communicate. As for World of Warcraft, there is a general and trade chat where everyone in that part of the realm can see what a player says. There is the private chat between two people, there are small group chats between players in a small group, and there is the guild chat (players in World of Warcraft organize themselves into large social groups called guilds). My first few weeks had me looking to the internet to translate the language I read. Words like noob, pwn, lawlz were foreign to me, as were a variety of acronyms (irl, lfg, afk, brb, ftw) that also sent me to the internet for translation. Asking for help in the general chat could result in mockery, so I found a guild of older players like me, and I would go to them for help or assistance in navigating the communication and traditions I saw happening in the game. Similar to the second stage of culture acquisition, the people in my guild provided necessary support that one often needs when immersing into a new culture (Brown, 1982).

Adjusting to a new culture is difficult, regardless of that culture. Gamer culture is no different. While adjusting to gamer culture through MMOs is certainly not as difficult as adjusting to a new culture in reality, but it highlights various differences in the two worlds to which gamers need to adjust. The “culture stress” described in stage three appropriately notes that as we adjust to our new surroundings we can “accept the differences in thinking and feeling” which surround us (Brown, 1982). With some experience, the ‘noob’ in the game begins to shed some of her innocence of the culture as she begins to use new language and begins to seek out companions for her adventures in the game. As she loses her innocence, she can more easily relate to “natives” and fit into the culture of the game a bit more comfortably.

There comes a moment in every transition from one culture to another where the individual reaches “assimilation or adaptation” (Brown, 1982). I realized I had fully adapted and assimilated into gamer culture when I could easily talk to my gamer students. When I engaged in some of the traditions of the game. When I could easily navigate my way in World of Warcraft. When I could easily enter a new MMO or conversation about a video game. I am truly bilingual and bicultural as I speak the language of gamer culture as easily as I speak my native language. I recognize myself in and out of gamer culture.   

So I come back to Travis and the idea that a person who speaks two languages is two people. The person I am in gamer culture is very different from the person who played with Travis’ blues band that night. Both rely on language particular to that culture, and both utilize words that might be recognizable to those not a part of that culture, however the true meaning of those words are predicated on fluency within that culture. I have to consider the implications on my students. Every new school year, students have to adjust to micro cultures with new teachers and new classrooms. Each teacher seeks to create a culture in his or her room that suits the course and the teaching/learning style of the teacher and, hopefully, meet the needs of the students. Every year I see over 100 new faces as they struggle to adapt to the culture I seek to create in my classroom. Eventually, many develop fluency in the language of my room and my classes, and when they do, they become two people: the student inside my classroom and the young adult outside of it. Until they develop fluency in the language of my room, however, they work to adapt. It is upon me and others familiar with the culture in my room to help the ‘noobs’ as they go through the four stages of culture shock. And when they are able to assimilate, hopefully true learning can happen.

Source:

Brown, H. Douglas. (1982). Sociocultural factors. In Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 193-196). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Colonized by the grade book

Modern education has been fully colonized by the grade book. As any colonizer, the grade book imposes its values as truth and reality over those whom have been colonized. This is not an easy process as these values often are in direct opposition with the colonized‘s previously held values. Eventually, however, with force and other methods of control, these values will be seen as the only way forward and will not to be questioned. When this shift happens, the colonizer’s ideology becomes reality and the colonized see no other way but that way of life.

My AP class just read George Orwell’s, “Shooting an Elephant.” Every time I use this essay in class, I am reminded why I sympathize with the speaker when he is compelled to use his rifle, which he calls a”magical,” because it transforms him to a man of power and authority.  While I do not have a magical rifle, I have a magical grade book. And like the speaker in the essay, I am forced to use it. And sadly, due to the process of colonization, sometimes that is all the students, like all colonized, understand.

A quick summary if you are not familiar the essay: The speaker of the essay is a British police officer in Lower Burma. As such, he is a representative of the colonizing force from England. The speaker admits early in the essay that “imperialism was an evil thing” and was doing what he could to get away from it. One day, however, the speaker recalls a “tiny incident” which he claims reveal the true “nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” He was called to do something about an elephant running amok in the bazaar. The speaker does not want to hurt the elephant, but with the collected wills of the local population, he is compelled to use his magical rifle and shoot the elephant.

Much like the speaker I am compelled to confront my own elephant, which I do with my magical grade book. My students understand in the abstract the meaninglessness of grades and test scores. They understand that the only people who care about their grades and transcripts are them, their parents, and (to a certain degree) their college application. But the values imposed by the colonizer is quite different. The colonizer seeks to supplant the will of the colonized with the will of the colonizer. This is not an easy process and one that has to be done over and over again, lest the colonized’s will resurge. And so my students focus on the magical grade book.

Every time I read this essay, it seems that the colonizer, too,  must be re-colonized in order to inflict the colonizer’s will upon the natives. The speaker realizes that what he is doing is not the right thing, regardless, he continues with it. He continues to use this magical rifle. He continues to enforce the colonizer’s rules and impose their values.

Just like I continue to enter and ‘value’ grades. And spend the first few days back from summer break looking over SAT, PSAT, IB, AP, and other test scores (I don’t mind data, what I do mind is not allowing my students to be individuals). In doing all of this, I break the will of my students a bit more so that they are fully under the spell of the colonizer.

To push this metaphor of colonization one step further, there is a time when learning is about joy and fun. When the grade book does not matter. A time when school is about exploring. But then enters the test. Enters the venerated test maker. Enters the person who has the fucking audacity to ask if your first grader is college ready? Here, the kid leaves and is replaced with a data point or, worse yet, the stresses of being adult.

I find myself playing into the game. I find myself pulling out my magical grade book. I listen to the crowd of thousands making sure I use it.

As we started to discuss “Shooting an Elephant,” I presented this idea to my students. The irony is they agree. They agree that they are the elephant and the system (through me and the grade book) is taking their will very slowly. They agree that their thoughts about school and education have been fully colonized and they cannot see anything beyond the ‘significance’ of the grade book. They agree that the first question they are concerned about is if an assignment is being graded and how many points it is worth. It seems the more it is worth, the more work they will put into it.

And so I work to combat it. I work to find the balance between satisfying the needs and wants of the colonizer and making sure my students leave my classes with their wills mostly in tact. To be honest, in order to function as a society, we must give a bit of ourselves up, I have no problem with this. What concerns me, however, is the lack of desire for many of my students to learn for themselves in school, to put themselves into their learning. That if we want them to become lifelong learners, then we have to confront the incentive for learning in school. We have to confront the process of colonization through the grade book.

I will be spending some time over the next few posts as I explore some of what I am trying to do to combat this process colonization by the grade book in my classes. Right now, I am experimenting with the grades themselves, I am including some PBL approaches to learning, and other ideas. But I wonder about you? What are you doing in your classes to try and get your students’ focus off the grade book and on the learning? Please share some ideas in the comments.