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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Apocalyptic teaching in 2012: skate or die

[Cross-posted from]

Chevro Skates graphic prototypesI believe in negotiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment with students. I believe in inquiry and erring on the side of students’ pursuits over that of the state. I believe in asking students what they want to do and asking myself how I can help them accomplish their goals. I don’t think we need – or could find – a more compelling model of teaching or assessment than that.

However, as usual, I offer this disclaimer: I don’t always teach to my ideals. Sometimes I give in to the instincts I developed as a school-successful student and teacher. I deliver content and look for short cuts that prove there’s enough “achievement” going on in my classroom to give cover to the real learning students want to pursue. I fall back on traditional instruction sometimes when it’s easier and more expedient to do so than it is to work through the weeks or months of patience it takes students to become comfortable with self-directed learning.

Given the state of schooling, I could blame the system, but I am the system’s branch manager in my classroom, so I acknowledge that I am frequently impatient (and factual knowledge comes quickly with the right kind of access) and I am sometimes afraid of not producing enough passing scores to earn me the right to “indulge” students in more authentic learning than our common assessment – the state’s standardized civics & economics course – asks of us.

Frankly, I wonder what kind of school, classroom, and learning I facilitate for students if I got over myself. I am my own worst status quo as an educator.

Every once in a while, despite the vagaries of my teaching, my students show me what I’m after.

This year it took a while for once class to find what it wanted to do. At this point, over 80% of its students have formed a skateboard design “company” in response to their economics unit. I invested in some blank decks and the kids formed a kind of board that governs the company by consensus in everything from taking on new “workers” to deciding on the final designs we will use as stencils and decals.

The Money Chevro design

The Money Chevro design

[By “company” I mean an on-going project that takes advantage of school fund-raising precedent set by students’ donation of work to
the non-profit that supports our school and uses such work to support our school.]

Kids are critiquing one another’s art on a regular basis without taking offense. A typical critique has students spreading out all their designs on the floor and walking around them until they find consensus on a design for each student to revise. As part of the revision process, kids are teaching one another about how to build stable, re-usable stencils with gates that keep interior details from getting lost.

Critiquing our designs

Critiquing our designs

We’ve begun taking our many prototyped designs and digitizing them using a Wacom tablet and SketchBookPro – a program students are teaching themselves and one another to use.

Digitizing our designsp

Digitizing our designs

We’ve just gotten an airbrush into class for the first time thanks to a class parent and a student willing to demo the tool and “certify” classmates on it.

Our airbrush station

Our airbrush station

The company has become a spiraling review of our economics content, as well as an ongoing arts- and technology-infused project.

We sourced our boards after researching and pricing them online – we bought Canadian boards, but once we make a profit, we plan to consume slightly more expensive boards produced in the United States. We set our price per board based on pre-order demand from friends and family and on the cost of replacing the boards and paints we’ll use in detailing our first batch of goods.

We’ve begun conversations about copyright and trademark in anticipation of the kids one day taking the company with them after they leave school.

And we got here because students suggested starting a skateboard company after learning enough economics content to realize that they could do something more with it than I asked of them. And because the class was kind of obsessed with mouse deer (a.k.a. chevrotains) for a few weeks. Hence the name of our company, Chevro Skates (or Chevro Sk8s – I don’t really know which one it is – or that we have to pick one or the other).

Our mascot, Sarge, in progress

Our mascot, Sarge, in progress

We are doing stuff, not just talking about it.

We could do this all day – we could keep super-detailed books; we could get really wonky about the proportion and ratio of surface area, skate designs, and whitespace. We could write ad copy and script promotional videos. We could build a website. We could research all kinds of inquiry-based questions about the human condition and draft social-justice murals fit to the dimensions of our boards. We could pursue flow and cash flow in support of arts materials for our school and treat our classroom more like a member-supported hack space than a holding cell.

We could, but I would have a lot of persuading to do and I wonder if I am up to it. This is not what Virginia is after. This is not what the United States is after – not for kids in school. Sometimes, this is not what I am after. However, not to be glib, when I look at this project and think about my work, I feel like it is indeed time for my teaching to skate or die.

Our skate company is the future of education. It is a learning space that could sustain itself all day if we – or, in this case, I – let go of our teacher-space conventions of movie-theater scheduling, race-track pacing, certified delivery, demand performance, and arbitrary judgment. A learning space is defined by its people, relationships, and learning; a teaching space is defined by a teacher’s presumptions about people, relationships, and learning.

Spaces like the skate company already exist for learners of all ages; what remains to be seen is whether or not we teachers, in our role as the system, acknowledge these spaces and allow students to build them in our classrooms before we – and our classrooms – go the way of the dinosaurs.

Trogdor v. Wexter

Trogdor v. Wexter: the way of the dinosaurs

Pretty scary, right?


About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


8 thoughts on “Apocalyptic teaching in 2012: skate or die

  1. I enjoyed getting a snapshot of what you’re doing in your classroom.

    I think context is critical.

    When I asked my students what they wanted to do, social justice murals were at the top of the list (along with a project on how they would redesign the urban enclave where they live). They wanted to do community interviews, create a documentary, get a little wonky with a Needs Assessment, craft a website and send a plan to the city planners to see if it could really happen.

    In other words, they wanted to do all the things you mention your students having no interest in doing.

    In other projects (like the paper border, where they created a mock border out of paper machet as a memorial for people who had died crossing the border) or the product design project or the service projects, they wanted to be much more hands-on and spend less time planning and more time acting.

    Sometimes it looked almost entirely traditional. “Let’s have a silent time where we can read or blog and no one talks” and “let’s have book clubs where we read it and discuss how it relates to life” or “let’s have philosophical friday, where we have philosophical discussions.”

    I don’t think it’s about what’s new or what’s different, what’s untraditional or what’s innovative. I don’t think it’s about what’s going to be around in ten or twenty years or what’s out there in “the real world.” I don’t think it’s about changing or going extinct.

    It’s about the current context, the current relationships and the learning that happens when we are truly vulnerable with one another and willing to share the space.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | January 10, 2012, 10:59 am
  2. What grade level are you each teaching?

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | January 10, 2012, 12:54 pm
  3. you go (or let go) man..
    doing rather than talking about.

    love it.
    a scare? a risk?
    perhaps as we perceive it to be just now.
    imagining unleashing the potential if we can but just jump in. start swimming in being. in cognitive discomfort

    Posted by monika hardy | January 15, 2012, 9:45 am
  4. This is a great conversation, especially in John’s response and Chad, your follow up. Chad is being self-critical and searching, John describing what his kids actually want to do. You are both gifted teachers who encourage kids to honor themselves as learners much more than most classrooms. Chad sees the limits of this in conventional schooling. John sees possibilities within the conventional structure. Some kind of focused, twining discourse between the two of you around exactly this issue might be interesting to Coop readers?

    Posted by Kirsten | January 16, 2012, 8:45 am

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