Tuesday, January 22, 2013

One Problem Defined

Nominated for something recently, I had the opportunity to respond in one typed, double-spaced page to the following prompt about the teaching profession:

  1. Define the major issues in public education today.  Address one in depth, outlining possible causes, effects, and resolutions.
  2. Describe how Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Standards Aligned System can inform and improve education in our schools.
  3. Describe what you do to strengthen and improve the teaching profession.

Focusing instead on one connected thought in the required space, my reply ignores the second charge of the writing prompt. Well-intention, the inclusion of this second component of the question serves to partially help me make my point-- education wants to herd everything in measurable value-added categories. The plain truth remains, education does not always fit the rubric or the test. The prompt asked the nominees to address a problem in public education and that is what I did.

In a 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation.”  And thus, innovation is a major issue in public education today because it does not fit the current model of Draconian education reform.  We get what we emphasize, Mr. President.

The President wants innovators, yet education reform emphasizes numbers and scores. Framed by policy makers, academics, and politicians, current education reform is built on numbers and testing and as Diane Ravitch wrote in The New York Times on January, 2011,  “None of these ideas is supported by research or has a record of success.” And across American teachers wait for judgment to fall upon them.

So you’ll forgive the confusion and angst among my peers when they hear the President romanticize, “What we can do -- what America does better than anyone else -- is spark the creativity and imagination of our people."  Creativity and imagination can’t be scored…and should not be scored. 

Creativity and imagination are the sisters of failure. And when we say we embrace innovation we have to say that we embrace failure. Beautiful failure! Oh how I wish we meant what we said.
So let’s be honest, if I am selected as Pennsylvania’s Teacher of the Year I would like to tell President Obama and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan the truth. We will only find creativity, imagination, and innovation in our schools, when we have inspired teachers.  And inspiration only comes with time…time that has been stolen from America’s teachers. Our leaders have to give teachers their time back—without a value added. Without fear of failure. Trust us. 

Whether we discuss Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pablo Picasso, or Carl Sandberg, all of history’s great innovators embraced equal amounts of solitude, collaboration, and failure. How would anyone measure a Tesla or a Picasso failure? Yet we are quick to embrace their triumphs, aren’t we?

I add strength to the teaching profession by embracing the tenets of creativity, innovation, and imagination through solitude, collaboration, and accepting failure as a chance for growth with my peers and my students. I model it in my professional life through active involvement in the National Writing Project at West Chester University (Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project), blogging about teaching, creating my own daily professional development on Twitter—all of these contain components of solitude and collaboration. And then I demand it in my class by granting students the privilege of equal amounts of solitude and collaboration. Solitude to read books of interest. Collaboration on big ideas in what we read. Solitude to explore our thoughts through writing. Collaboration to grow our writing with feedback from peers and mentors. By reading and writing in solitude and in collaboration I engage my students to see where language fails us on the path towards winning the future and inspiring something better for our world.

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