Sunday, September 12, 2010

The 4th "R" for Unmotivated Youth: Relationship

(Reflections on RESIDENT ALIENS by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, "Why School 'Reform' Fails" by Robert J. Samuelson in NEWSWEEK of Sept. 13, 2010)

Educational reforms since 1970 have produced no rise in scores and an increased percentage of college freshmen who need remedial work in the three r's, and efforts to halt the flow of young adults away from the churches of their youth have failed. Is there a common thread?

Economist Robert J. Samuelson tells how efforts have failed to improve schools.  Lower student-teacher ratios, higher teacher pay, and locally successful reforms haven't made a difference across the nation.  He blames "shrunken student motivation."  He does not automatically blame teachers, pointing out that unmotivated students used to have another option: 40% of 17 year olds dropped out of school in 1950.  He adds that "adolescent culture" has eroded the authority of teachers and schools.  He has no solution, ridiculing the aim of having "a great teacher in every classroom" as akin to having every football team comprised only of All-Americans.

Hauerwas and Willimon argue that American churches are failing because "we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve." I'm only part way through this book, interested because I saw Hauerwas in early August.  So far, this statement, and some anecdotes from chapter five are the only things that have struck me.  The rest, so far, is stuff familiar to me but presented as if it were some kind of revolutionary revelation emerging from the ashes of everyone else's theology.  I reserve judgment.

But H and W do present an anecdote in the most interesting chapter that I've read so far in my jumping around, chapter five.  The two tell how one of them belonged to a church that challenged itself to reform its routine for confirming youth.  Classroom learning "about" Jesus and "joining the church" were discarded in favor of trying Jesus' own method of discipleship, or, in more modern terms, mentoring.  Adults identified by fellow members in confidential surveys were each paired with a teen, expected to meet once every couple of weeks to compare notes on reading a gospel, attending a church funeral, experiencing the same worship, performing some community service. 

This idea of mentoring is something I've been trying to achieve with my seventy-odd seventh graders this year.  I have in mind the tutoring I did for a stammering, non-writing, test-failing repeat eighth grader named Mike back around 1984.  He'd already failed my course; I soon felt it was futile to keep beating the dead horses of the curriculum.  We began to make progress the day that I stopped talking at all, and instead took out paper and wrote across the top, "Tell me in writing about your family."  He wrote, as usual, a one-line answer about having a mother, father, and grandmother. He handed the paper back.  I asked a follow-up: "Tell me more about your grandmother."  He wrote that she lived next door.  "Anything else?" She had red hair.  "When was she born?"  He had no idea. "Go home and talk to her."  He came back the next day, grabbed the paper, and wrote two pages of closely spaced text. 

I don't recall much of what happened after that, except that it was a major break through, my own Helen Keller at the water pump. He went on, not only to succeed at the high school, but to become a self-confident track star and scholar, who went on to gather more than one advanced degree.

I'm thinking that in-class writing for my kids could easily take that form.  Could I start class with a question, "What did you learn yesterday in class and in reading that you want to discuss more?"  Then, I keep pressing them with follow up questions until they do tell more.  I've done this in drama class, letting other students write the follow up questions for me.  Some write one sentence and answer a dozen follow up questions; others develop their thoughts fully, the first time.  The aim, of course, is to teach the questions that a critical thinker asks himself when reading or developing an idea.  It's worth the time, if I can do it.

So, let's keep thinking about a fourth "r," relationship.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Arts in Education: Boxes (2007)

(Having just recently posted a meditation on Arts in Education, I was reminded of this from a speech I gave about the arts to an audience of students and parents in 2007.)

Students may experience their days as a never-ending series of interruptions to real life.  They sit in a box to learn something called a "subject" until a bell signals them to move to another box for another subject, and so on.   Maybe they have a scheduled activity after school.  Then they may have some time to kill sitting in front of a box that tells them everything they know about our world today while it entertains them.   On weekends, some students' families gather in large boxes to think about God for a couple of hours.  Then it's back to the routine.    Does anything connect all those boxes to each other?  Can all these boxes connect to the students' "real life," not only at some future graduation ceremony, but now?  

That connection is what Andy Linn (Walker 2006) found in his various arts classes at Walker.   Now in a prestigious arts program at Cornell, he had excelled at Walker as both writer and actor in my drama class, and he had built a distinctive portfolio for AP art as a senior.  I asked him what I might say to middle schoolers about the importance of the arts in their schedule. He thought only a moment before he said, "Connections."  Preparing more than a dozen works of art in different media and styles for his AP credit, he was thinking about his art all day long. Suddenly he found that he enjoyed his classes more, concentrated more, because he was suddenly seeing connections between one subject and another. He said that they all went into his designs.

Now, he didn't have time to explain that part. Did he mean that he drew pictures of Presidents after he studied history? Was he putting equations onto canvasses? I really can't say.

But he reminded me of my senior year, when everything seemed to be coming together. That's when a poem by a soldier brought the First World War home to me in a way that the history book did not. As I was compressing vast amounts of data into a simpler equation, I realized that this was the same thing I was doing writing a poem, simplifying all my thoughts into the shortest possible statement of metaphor, "all this" equals "all that."

And he made me consider how all thinking is a matter of finding a connection between two things that don't appear to be related. And the arts are the one part of our lives where you use words, or designs made out of sound or color, to connect a feeling or a vision to an audience or viewer. It takes awareness of the world outside our little boxes, and skill to use a vocabulary of words, or a vocabulary of musical notation, or a vocabulary of colors and shapes that do more than just "express your feelings." You can do that with text messaging. Good art or music or drama or poetry is never about the self alone, but about enlarging the self to include others. The successful artist doesn't just express a feeling, but gets other people to feel it, too.

So, art isn't one box among others. It is a way of looking at life that sees through the imaginary walls that keep everything in its own little place. 

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Arts in Education: Got a Moment?

(Written for the Walker School's 2010-2011 fine arts brochure, to be handed out for performances all year long, by yours truly, as Middle School Fine Arts Chair,)

Before the performance, please take a moment to wonder at the time our students took to prepare for it.  

For you, it’ll be over in the next hour or two.  For the young artists, each minute took nearly an hour of practice.     Ten minutes or so was enough to memorize a minute of dialogue, more than enough to learn a tune; so what did they do with the remainder of each hour?  

For instrumentalists and singers, the notes are just raw material to be shaped.   Learning how to color the tone, to connect notes as a phrase, to move a phrase towards the next turning point in the piece – learning how music does make turns and climaxes –  that all takes time, first for discovery, then for practice.   When every musician has done that much, it remains for their teacher to blend their tones and phrasing with everyone else’s.     Thank you, Sonya Peebles, Erik Kofoed, Todd Motter, Samantha Walker, and Chris Johnson!

A play is, to a script, what a visit to the Grand Canyon is to the map of Arizona.   The script prints what characters say, but actors have to make us know what characters think.  We drama teachers – Regena Simpson, Patty Mozley, Katie Arjona, and I – won’t settle for imitations and stereotypes.  We keep our actors digging into the script and their own life experience until characters look, sound, and respond as real people.  Besides all that, there are dozens more hours of work done backstage to create the looks and sounds of an imaginary world, thanks to Bill Schreiner, Matt Eisenman, and Richard Gibson, and the students who help with design and production.    

Coming here today, you passed by students’ art work, pieces that took hours to make.   An artist who tries to depict an object, or to use a certain medium in a certain way, has so many questions to answer.  Where will I focus the viewer’s gaze?  How?  What color, shade, texture, position, or angle will convey the feeling I choose?  All of our art teachers from Pre-K to A.P.  – Kimberly Nasca, Sherry Walker-Taylor, Philippa Anderson, and Laura Stewart -- use their time to help each student discover a distinctive personal approach.

Finally, as I finish this note, I know that it will fit into an elegant publication produced at great expense of time by a group of parents who support young artists and their teachers in all the work I’ve described.    These Patrons of the Arts know that hours deeply engaged in the arts can lead to a moment of clarity and discovery, remembered for a lifetime. 

Enjoy such moments of your next hour, and come back again for more!