EDUCATION MATTERS:

We had a school-wide writing assignment on the following topic: With the widespread use of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, there has been much debate about how and if teenagers should use these sites. Should social networking sites have restrictions on usage?

Our students took time out from their daily routine to sit for about 45 minutes and put their thoughts on paper using this prompt. The goal was to engage the kids' experience and presumably their opinions, since these Internet services have so captured their fancy.

A percentage of students — not a large percentage — rise admirably to these occasions and write wonderful, technically correct essays that conform to carefully crafted criteria. The greater majority comply with the assignment with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.

Below that are the students who perform below expectations. It is, alas, not a small group. Some are vocal about their apathy. “Who cares about this?” Some are more quietly apathetic, having been reminded several times a year for the last decade or so that they are average, below average or failures.

Those messages tend to take hold of kids by the time they get to high school. School-wide writing assignments become another opportunity to display their inadequacy.

After the kids write, we teachers get into clusters and evaluate their efforts. Then we tabulate the results so that we can get a school-wide read on their progress. We are told to base our evaluations on a rubric (set criteria) that has each of us rating an essay not so much on its creative content, but on its compliance to rules: Did they cite relevant data from the articles they were required to read beforehand?

Divergent thinking, which is what we should also be emphasizing, gets de-emphasized in deference to standards and rubrics and benchmarks, which are fine when they are used as guidelines but positively stifling when they are presented as mandates.

My hat is off to one group of teachers who, upon reading a particular student essay that ignored the rubric and instead wrote a very cogent piece questioning the topic, the process and the goals of the entire assignment, gave him a top score.

This young lad, we'll call him Steve, is well known to me. His mind is perfectly intact, but it does not always operate in conventional ways.

He reacted instinctively against this assignment because it reminded him of so many others that funnel students into standardized molds and common assessments.

I am most thankful that young people like Steve are in the mix of students described above, and we need to give them all the encouragement we can. Despite all that we do in the profession that deliberately and methodically places Steve in a box, he is one who insists on thinking outside of it.

And if that sounds like some kind of educational anarchy, I would hasten to add that many of the movers and shakers in our history, regardless of their field of endeavor, were nonconformists. If it is mediocrity that we are looking to cultivate, we should indeed continue teaching and assessing our students in common modes.

In my department (history), there is a concerted effort to see that each of us is covering the same material, in the same way and at the same time. We just finished sitting around tables with others who teach the same subject agreeing upon exactly what multiple choice questions we would all use so that we could all be “on the same page” in our presentation of history.

I would urge parents to check in with their schools (from first grade forward) and ask their teachers whether hours of instruction in courses like social studies, art, music, physical education or any course that is not tested by the California Standards Test have been cut, or perhaps even eliminated.

If it is the case, it is not from district policy but rather teacher apprehension that their students will not score well on the subjects tested by the state.

My advanced age, tenure and, I am thankful to say, an indulgent administration, allow me some deviation from all of this. There is, I suppose, a risk of my contaminating younger teachers with the thought of resisting mandates that come down to them.

Be that as it may, I believe there's a greater risk of putting braces on teachers' styles and sense of individuality as well as deterring young college students who have a budding passion for the profession.

So I'll continue my quiet rebellion for the few years I have left in teaching and encourage the Steves that pass through our school to do the same.


?DAN KIMBER is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@sbcglobal.net.

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