[Cross-posted from Classroots.org.]
I 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.
[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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Pretty scary, right?