Today I spent an hour at my daughter’s school watching five 5th grade classes do their orignal performances at an event titled “Expressions.” For the last several weeks the students in each class have been spending their “specials” (meaning physical education, Spanish, music and art) on creating an original performance that incorporates these classes, which I think are called specials because they are not tested, which means they are nonessential. From what the lead teacher told us, each of the five classes was given full artistic license to be creative, the only constraint being the theme of a Puerto Rican Folk tale about frogs singing like birds. They had worked on these by themselves, we were told, and that this performance was so the students to see watch each other’s creative expressions.
And then I sat, flabbergasted, as five classes did almost exactly the same “original” performance. Their costumes, advertised as orignal art, all looked the same. Their lines were all the same, often mumbled with little feeling by listless students. They all played the same drums the same way and stood in the same places. As I sat watching the seemingly synchronized performances, I wondered if there had been one original script. After two performances, I was bored. After five, catatonic.
Then I thought about what it must be like for the students to be told that they would have full creative licence, that they could own the project, only to find out that no, there was already a way to do it and lo and behold the teachers had already created it for them. I thought that in many ways my sitting through that performance was what it was like for many students to sit through school, one big repetitive script played over and over and pawned off as creative and original.
And then we stood and clapped for the teachers who had put this together, for all of their hard work and dedication for making “this” happen- which to me looked like herding kids into the crushing corral of conformity. I am not bashing teachers, because it goes far beyond them, as each of these teachers had to be accountable for how this project met the standards, down the fine print. They had to know the script before the play began, because their superiors demand this in the form of objectives, lesson plans and bench marks. And once the teachers are fenced in in terms of creativity, it is almost impossible for their students to do anything but what they did- aka same damn thing.
I am not sure where to go with this, in part because I am concerned about my daughter’s education. I see hope at the Sustainability Workshop for a kind of education that really walks the talk in terms of pushing students to think out of the box, and then working to give them the skills to actually get out of the box. I think the reason this works is because the teachers get out of the box. They experiment, create, and push their practices in ways that they see as benefitting their students. And then they learn from what happens.
This is what the Workshop is for us, the teachers and founders. It is our attempt at writing our own script for school, one that allows students to do the same with their education. It is anything but easy, but at least everyone (and I mean everyone) at the Workshop is engaged and committed to what they are doing. They should be, because they are allowed to follow their interests, passions and questions. Sure there are mistakes and false starts, but this is where the learning is for everyone- teachers and students alike.