Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Educating Half a Child?

I recently read "Two Takes on Whole" from the Summer on-line Educational Leadership. Hugh B. Price and Stephanie Pace Marshall are interviewed on what it means to educate the "whole child." It continues to surface for me this week as I work with teachers from a local district investigating assessment and grading.

As a middle school teacher - I fully embrace the concept of educating the "whole child;" being able to see beyond just the academics to teacher character, problem-solving and citizenship. These were kids experimenting with being adults, often reverting to early childhood, all within the same day (or class period!) It made sense to me then and it continues to make sense now that we need to equip them for what lies beyond our formal public education system.

I don't think any teacher is out there purposefully teaching to half or three-quarters of any child. It is hard to be in a room full of learners - of any age - and not recognize the other pieces that will come into play. Personal life - how well they slept - what motivated them to be there. All will play a role in how much they learn that day.

So I started thinking about authentic assessment - mostly because at the end of the interview, both Marshall and Price are asked about a childhood moment they'll never forget:

Price:When I was growing up, I couldn't hit a curve ball. But in the course of pursuing my love of baseball, I devoured baseball magazines—for children as well as for adults. I discovered that if I could understand how to calculate a batting average, I'd have long division down cold. In other words, the pursuit of this first love reinforced everything that school was about. It reinforced teamwork, it reinforced my academic skills, and it reinforced my curiosity.

I've often said that a school could take Jackie Robinson's life and turn it into a yearlong course that covers many subjects, from the migration of blacks to the North and West, to equal opportunity, to the military justice system. All these things were incorporated in his life. Moreover, kids could learn how to calculate the square footage of a baseball diamond. In the infield, the bases are laid out in a perfect square. But once you get to the outfield, you've got all these weird shapes, and you've got to learn how to analyze that. You can learn some physics too: When you throw a ball and it's fired back at you, it's coming through a certain plane at a certain speed. The education experience should really zero in on and nurture kids' passions and curiosity.

Marshall: I was always so affirmed as a learner when I was growing up that it stayed with me and built a grounding of unshakable courage. We had a 1956 Ford when I was a child. My father chose to buy it without a radio. Why would you buy a radio, he said, when we could sing? Whenever we went on long family car trips, we made up songs, we spelled words backwards, we identified which states all the license plates were from, and we took the map with us so we knew exactly where we were in the world and in the country. We learned how to pay attention. Everything was a question. We always made up stories, puzzles, and rhymes. It was always about learning. But it wasn't about schooling. It was about learning and trying to figure things out and what would happen if. I was just so blessed.
Those childhood moments capture authentic learning - learning that meant something to the learner, that was relevant and useful to them. We could teach that way - we could create authentic experiences for our students, but somehow we feel bound to "The Test." I am not convinced that was the intention of the test designers - but it certainly is the unintended consequence. I have long stated that I like the NYS Social Studies assessment with respect to Document Based Questions as it asks kids to think like historians- something I was never asked to do from elementary school to college (where I received a degree in history!!)

Now - my childhood memories do not involve unearthing hidden historical treasures. However, many summers were spent at the family cabin in Onoville, NY. Near the Alleghany State Park, there was plenty of outdoor adventure for us: hiking, swimming in creek beds, boating. One of our favorite things to do was to examine the rocks in the creek behind the cabin for fossils. These rocks would have the image of leaves or small bugs embedded in them over time. The highest value was placed on the fossils that looked almost like rock sea-shells. We would save them, trade them, try to sneak them home in the car. Somehow - I believe they all ended up back in the creek!!

Yet they provided hours of imaginative play for us - using them as money like we had read Native Americans did, imagining what the world was like when the fossil impressions actually lived, creating stories about ancient peoples. It was rich fun and probably fueled my love of history. But it wasn't a story I ever shared with my students.

I wonder what our classrooms would look like if we tapped these childhood experiences and brought them to our students. If we designed our lessons to provide opportunities to learn in a more authentic way - to follow a path of curiosity. I'm willing to bet our students would do just as well on several state assessments - maybe even better. So help me - what are some childhood memories of learning you have that we can use to develop lessons in our classrooms?

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