NOT Giving Up on Education

Goyal_Cover_final_small1-400x600

Over the summer, the book One Size Does Not Fit All by Nikhil Goyal caught my eye. It crept up on a few different occasions before I bought it. It wasn’t the title that first sparked a curiosity; instead, it was the age of it’s author– 17 years old, yes, 17. I did not read the book when I purchased it. Rather, it sat in my to-read pile for months. When I returned to school, the title of our principal’s professional development workshop was “One Size Does Not Fit All.” I assumed that he’d read the book, but he never mentioned it in his lecture/power point which focused on differentiated instruction. One of his primary messages was to provide students the opportunities to do-over their work until they reach a comprehensive understanding. I walked away from the workshop thoughtful about his messages.

I recall, as a young teacher– some twenty-ish years ago, I was like a sponge at workshops like this, soaking in all of the information I could. Over the last four – eight years, let’s say I’ve become somewhat jaded, if not skeptical, because I don’t readily “buy” the information put in front of me. I’m confident and experienced enough to question when I don’t think something is right– especially where it concerns my passion which is educating young people– the doers and thinkers and leaders of our future.

On a cold January night, I recalled Goyal’s book, sitting in my to-read pile, so I cozied up on the couch and began to read. I found myself connecting to so many of his assertions in the book. How we are dumbing down education and not focusing on the right things. How education, today, is more about political agendas (such as ‘No Child Left Behind’ and ‘Race to the Top’) and financial interests. I was encouraged by his proposals regarding how to engage kids in today’s society. He inspired me to want to DO something as a result of reading this book, which I read cover to cover in just two hours.

We, teachers, have been so entrenched in data-driven instruction, common assessment, common formative assessment, national testing. For God’s sake, we are now administering the P.S.A.T.s during school. As both a parent and a teacher, I find no relevance for the P.S.A.T.s (which is touted as a practice S.A.T.); it certainly was not an indicator of how my children scored on the S.A.T.s. It’s a money maker for College Board is what it is, as are all of the mandated tests, in my opinion. Furthermore, we are moving in the direction of Common Core, a new educational movement to streamline all education. In my discipline, at least, it seeks to move away from teaching classical literature to non-fiction. While I do believe there is a place for non-fiction in our English classrooms, I don’t believe in sacrificing the history of the body of canonical classics that have both reflected and shaped our society. It is in knowing what has come before us that helps us understand what lies ahead of us. The classics teach us to become literate people. I mean literate in the sense that we share a common language of race, segregation, feminism, religion, freedom, success, civil rights, war, coming of age… and the list goes on an on. My stance is not about not wanting to change. I am a huge proponent of change, most recently infusing technology in the classroom. I believe in making education relevant for our youth; moreover, I strongly believe that in making it relevant is where true learning occurs. Students don’t want to be taught a novel, for instance, in isolation. It’s in the way a student can connect it to his/her own life that matters.

But with all of this… minutia… that we are required to address, what truly shapes our students into educated, self-advocating, creative, community-minded, life-long learners is getting lost. Goyal quotes Robin Hanson, when he says “Our schools are creating less creative people.” Why?? Because in order to measure data, one needs to teach measurable information– that is the black & white, right or wrong information of old. It’s in the grey areas where ideas and creativity emerge. To support this, Goyal refers to studies that have found, as noted on Edutopia, submitted by Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond who conclude:

1. Students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems, and when they take part in projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.

2. Active-learning practices have a more significant impact on student     performance than any other variable, including student background and             prior achievement.

3. Students are most successful when they are taught how to learn as well as what to learn.

Time and time again, I have referred to Ken Robinson’s TED talk asserting that only through developing creativity in students are we doing our jobs in preparing them for the future.

In my experience, the complex group projects which present a problem to solve or a task to accomplish without providing step-by-step directions are the ones students learn the most from. Through these projects, they acquire life skills in working as part of a team, creating a product, figuring out how to create the product, researching, reaching dead-ends, problem solving, goal setting, working towards one’s strengths, overcoming obstacles, time management… the list goes on and on. Skills such as these will long take precedence over the content knowledge they’ve gained. I receive letters from alumni, who had whined through these kinds of  projects, stating something like, “Just tell us what you want,” who come to thank me for the knowledge they’ve acquired as a result, something that puts them one step ahead of their college peers.

Goyal states, “The purpose of school is to create lifelong learners. Period.” Students who need to learn only to pass a test, learn what they need to in order to pass the test, then forget about it the very next day. Further, Goyal asserts that assessment shouldn’t be a paper trail of who met the goals we set out for them; instead, it should be a conversation. He suggests we allow students to question and critique other students. This reminds me of the way I structure writing workshops. Students are provided with others’ writings, given time to comment in writing and, then, they do so orally in a round-table, workshop fashion. It becomes of conversation of what is and is not working in the pieces. Students come away from this experience asking when we can do it again because they learned so much from hearing the critiques of their peers. If we are asking students to write essays and norm their responses,  how are we honoring their individuality as writers and communicators?

I scarily envision the goals education in the future to create little clones of all the successful models who have come before them. For we will have a precise model if we study the data accurately enough, won’t we?

education wordle

What I respect about Goyal’s work is how well researched it was– he covered such a wide platform of issues that have arisen in education, speaking with leaders in education– those immersed in the field of education. Moreover, he provides plausible recommendations for how to make education better for the future.

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Creative Thinking
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Curiosity
  6. Risk-taking
  7. Overcoming Failure

He proposes that we re-think education. We change our mindset about failure, realizing that one needs to fail many times before one meets with success. Instead of coddling students with a false sense of accomplishment, we should herald failure when it’s an honest attempt to succeed. Goyal further proposes we allow students a  voice in where the path of their education goes– allowing them to work to their strengths and interests– because people are happier and more productive when they enjoy what they do.

If teachers become so sidetracked through all of the hoops we need to jump through for state-mandates and funds, the real business of education becomes lost. The creators and thinkers and entrepreneurs and leaders of tomorrow will be the victims.

I urge you to read this book if you are an educator, a parent, a student, a supporter of education. I purchased one for each of my administrators, hoping Goyal’s message resonates with them, so they could pass it on.

Creativity at Work

Image

So, I have completed the first draft of my novel with mostly excitement and a tinge of sadness. I’m going to miss my characters and their story.

I am reminded of the preface to David Copperfield where Charles Dickens writes:

“I do not find it easy to get sufficiently far away from this Book, in the first sensations of having finished it, to refer to it with the composure which this formal heading would seem to require. My interest in it, is so recent and strong; and my mind is so divided between pleasure and regret – pleasure in the achievement of a long design, regret in the separation from many companions – that I am in danger of wearying the reader whom I love, with personal confidences, and private emotions.”

Now, I’ve taken on the task of editing– not my favorite stage of writing, but I’ve been at it now for about a week, and I am literally obsessed. It’s all I want to do. Every spare moment is spent on reading/ re-reading/ tweaking/ thinking/ re-thinking/ checking for continuity/ expanding/ cutting back/ word-smithing…

And according to Mark Twain:

“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

So forgive me the lack of blog posts, for now, my creative juices are otherwise engaged.

The Words: A Film Writers MUST See

Musée des arts et métiers, Paris. Machine à écrire portable Corona, 1920.

The Words, a film released in 2012, written and directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, starring Bradley Cooper, Dennis Quaid, Jeremy Irons and Olivia Wilde, is a MUST SEE for writers. Stumbling upon it last night, it was the preview that first captured my attention. I’d never heard of it, though I am a fan of the whole cast.

the words

A multi-layered film, that has one thinking throughout, this film takes you on the journey of three writers who all have a connection. At the center is young, romantic, dreamer Rory Jansen, played by Cooper, who longs to have his work published and will stop at nothing to do so– even if it means stealing someone else’s words. As a viewer and writer, I am moved by Rory’s plight, a character who pours his heart out on the page only to seek rejection after rejection. Longing to live out his dream, Rory is caught up in a web he can’t get out of and has to chose between truth, love, and the career he’s always wanted.

The Old Man, played by Irons, confronts Rory because his words are those he stole, but the Old Man doesn’t want anything other than to let Rory know that HE knows his claim to fame– his great American Novel– isn’t his at all. The Old Man recounts how he came about telling the story– one derived from his own experience, including great love, pain and suffering as a young man. Spending only two weeks on an emotional outpouring, he describes the experience of writing his novel as the words pouring onto the pages from a place he didn’t know existed within him. His sole work becomes lost on a train somewhere in France. Iron’s characters loses his love, his child, and his work. Every one who’s ever written can feel the sense of loss Iron’s character must have experienced– to write something good, great even, to have your words captured on the page only to be lost in the abyss must be a paralyzing experience for any writer. I found myself connecting with his description of how he wrote, within those two weeks, as if the words being typed on the page were not even his own. In those moments, one recognizes himself as a writer; it’s something that addictive, an experience you want to recapture again and again, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. The Old Man admitted he tried to write again, but he gave up or lost his ability– he wasn’t sure.

The mature, accomplished writer, Clay Hammond, played by Quaid, opens up the film at a reading of his upcoming novel, entitled The Words, which reveals Rory and The Old Man’s story to the audience. As the primary narrator of the film, the viewer wonders what Hammond’s connection is to Rory’s story and how he knows it so intimately. Daniella, played by Wilde, a young, grad student and novice writer, demands an explanation to Rory’s story. She’s unsatisfied by Hammond’s explanation of how it all ends. Hammond gives her a host of possibilities that we, as writers, consider when crafting a story. I found myself applying this to my own novel I’m currently working on– playing out all the what ifs and imagining each one’s effect on the outcome of the story. Hammond reveals to Daniella, “At some point, you have to choose between life and fiction.” It’s a quote that resonates with me long after the film ends– the single quote in the film that ties the entire film together.

The stories we tell ourselves as writers often blur the lines between fiction and reality. For instance, with I’m in the heart of a novel, I feel what my character’s are feeling– the day’s writing absolutely affects my state of mind. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about my characters or considering the possibilities of this idea or that. I dream my novels to the point that sometimes I achieve clarity about them from my dreams. My husband if fond of telling me, “Life is not a fairy tale,” but for me it is. It’s what I do and who I am. I’ve yet to be faced with the decision of choosing between life and fiction, but it certainly overlaps my every day experience.

This film is the perfect marrying of two passions: film and writing. The film is well made, well sequenced. Of course, I prefer a non-linear, multi-layered narrative, especially when I can’t predict the connections before I’m meant to. In fact, I didn’t tie the whole of the connection of the characters together until after the film concluded. To me, that’s the mark of a good story, one in which I’m still fitting the pieces together long after it’s concluded, one that lives with me for hours after it’s over.

The Hours

I’d liken this film to The Hours, an adaptation of a novel by Michael Cunningham and directed by Stephen Daldry, released in 2002, which weaves together the lives of Virginia Woolf, Clarissa Vaughan and Laura Brown. It’s that same multi-layering that experiments with the collision of art/ writing and life moving from one woman’s life to another that finally reveals their connection at the end.

Pondering happiness, Clarissa Vaughan recounts a time in her life: “I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment.” Similarly, the Old Man, recounts in his telling of his story to Rory, his happiest moment, from which he drew upon for his novel, stating, “That was my moment. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was.” Both The Words and The Hours beg us to question our moments and the choices we make and how we decide to live with them.