Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Creative Teaching as DangerousStyle...it's time

Blog by
Morna mcDermot
Baltimore Education Reform Examiner

Every creative teacher should read Morna's blog if we are to subvert the corporate takeover of education. I have published Morna's blog in full - I am so impressed with what she has to say.


I have been taking a lot of risks lately in the name of resistance against the corporate takeover of public education .  And because of this, some days I worry for my professional security.  But I (and my conscience) sleep like a baby at night.  I think it’s good to be scared sometimes-because you’re taking a risk in something.  You see, life isn’t a dress rehearsal.  You get one shot, and I think it’s important to remember this, because when our children come into our classrooms, those moments are not a dress rehearsal for life either.  So the question becomes: What will we do with those moments?  Additionally, I pose the question in this essay: Are we preparing students for complicity or creativity?
In order to answer that question, we first have to pose the question: Are we preparing teachers to be creative? Because as the old saying goes- “You cannot transmit something you haven’t got.”

I’d like to share part of a poem by the late poet Charles Bukowski. He writes in his poem called Style.

“Style is the answer to everything.
A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing
To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art …
Bullfighting can be an art
Boxing can be an art
Loving can be an art
Opening a can of sardines can be an art
Style is the difference, a way of doing, a way of being done”
Teaching ought to be a dangerous thing done with style. Because it is an art. Science is good stuff. It gives us some solid information to help guide educational practices. But science is a tool, not a way of doing, in education.  Artists use science in their craft.  But the end results are far greater than the processes employed.  Like the poem says, education as dangerous style, a way of doing, a way of being done, creates all the difference.
Now, by dangerous I don’t mean running with scissors dangerous.  I mean the sense of danger that heightens the senses and creates what Maxine Greene calls “wide-awakeness,” such as when we are in the act of doing something creative.  Because creativity requires taking risks.  It requires embracing the unknown.  It requires both great humility to accept that maybe all the answers to life’s greatest questions have not already been answered, and great courage to trudge forward into the unknown in spite of this.
But how well do we prepare our teachers to approach their profession as a thing done with dangerous style? And better yet why should we?

We could discuss the well documented research that shows how creative teaching and learning result in vast improvements in student success, because if nothing else you’ve made the curriculum more student-centered, hands-on, and engaging. But I am not going to reiterate the obvious, even though this same research seems to escape the attention of policy makers pushing their one-size-fits-all model of curriculum and assessment for the sake of “accountability.” Now, I believe that some of these folks have good intentions; That they want all children to succeed, and that maybe they’re simply misguided in their efforts.  I have heard top-level administrators and policy makers play great lip service to creativity and critical thinking, but at the end of the day is anyone asking educators for samples of the dioramas the kids made?  Or video clips of the play they performed?  Photos of the wall murals they painted?   No, they ask for one thing: The test scores.
We cannot simply say to teachers, “Go ahead and risk everything-it’s ok-be creative.” That’s like saying let them eat cake.  It’s naïve, unrealistic, and simply unfair to encourage something for which they are given no genuine support.  That won’t work.  Teachers have to be encouraged to be, and honored for being, creative in order to redefine the narrative around education and the teaching profession first. And perhaps we need to begin with re-envisioning how we prepare teachers.
There are a few reasons that teacher preparation must embrace a more creative model for preparing teachers.

FIRST Right now there are folks, and organizations out there with economic and political motives of their own, writing the narrative around teacher identity, like what we’ve seen in Waiting for Superman-which I think more aptly be called Waiting for Godot, because it’s equally absurd.
And what does this narrative tell us? That teachers are lazy, unaccountable, uninformed, and are in need to tremendous micromanaging because of their supposed incompetency. What does that mean? It means that teachers are being told how to do their jobs, who they are, who they should be, or who they’re not.  Their own profession is being re-defined by others, and in a very negative light.
Teachers first need to take back their profession. Teachers need creativity in order to imagine a new narrative; to re write their own identities.  There’s a passage I read somewhere (sadly I can’t remember exactly where to give credit where credit is due but…) basically it said that if you want to colonize a people, you first take away their capacity to make art.  Why?  Because it’s through the creative imagination that we have the power to redefine for ourselves the world we wish to be in.  If you wish to foster complacency and complicity in a group of people, remove their opportunities to be creative thinkers.
It may seem a bit extreme to associate education reform with wholesale colonial oppression, but I think we’d be foolish to overlook some of the similarities.  When the Europeans wanted the lands of indigenous people, what did they do first? In order to take over a population you first have to justify your actions as morally sounds, right?  So the colonizers cast the indigenous people as lazy, stupid, unskilled, uneducated, “heathen” right?  A people in need of… wait for it folks….”REFORM!”

Our public schools are one of the last American land grabs for profit. These are dangerous time folks. And they require a dangerous style-creative teaching. I’ll give you one more brief example-the Tucson AZ Ethnic Studies program. You want to know the real reason why they shut that program down? Wait for it … it was working. It was increasing the graduation rate. Students were learning. They were being successful. The teachers in that program embodied creative teaching as its finest hour. Dangerous style, people. Dangerous style through creative teaching invites change you see.
If you go into almost any classroom today you’ll see teachers sacrificing their professional instincts to diverge from “THE PLAN” and the possibility of doing something creative and meaningful with their kids. I have heard a hundred times, “Well I thought it would be really interesting to (do X, Y, or Z) ….but I need to stick with the pacing guide or I need to use the worksheet they gave me because this is how it’s going to be on the test.” I can’t totally blame these teachers.  Look at what’s at stake if they take these creative risks and their students don’t produce the right numerical data needed to keep the sharks at bay.  It would naïve and foolish to expect teachers to risk their livelihood, their careers, and their paycheck that feeds their families.  Because sometimes fear is also a bad thing. And we are faced now with a climate of fear around education.  

Yet policy makers keep ratcheting up the stakes.  Now we threaten to fire teachers if their test scores aren’t high enough.  We close down whole neighborhood schools.  We post teacher test scores  in the news papers, so they have a big Scarlett letter A affixed to them.  We use punishment and public humiliation to drive success. This does not work.  Why?  Because fear paralyzes.  Fear kills our willingness to take risks even when we know the costs of our unwillingess to take those risks. That’s why they call it high stakes testing. But fear might also generate spaces for creative opportunities. Being creative now feels dangerous-and it is. Creativity reminds teachers that they have the power to take risks, to do a dangerous thing with style, and offers the skill sets needed to resist this destruction of their profession.
Because now we are at a new precipice. Teachers are realizing that even if they “play by the rules,” that their profession, their livelihoods, and the futures of their students are all going to be stolen from them anyway.  And when there’s nothing left to lose … dangerous style is exactly what is needed to forge ahead and fight back.
It is by being THIS kind of role model that we can successfully practice these same principals in our classrooms. The lip service teachers get from policy makers trickles down to what teachers say to their students. “Be creative. Take a risk. But you better get it right on the test, or else…” It’s a mixed message.  If you have kids-- in a classroom, or your own at home, or even if you’re a grandparent-- you know that the old adage “Do as I say not as I do” does not work.

So what is required in order to do creative teaching as dangerous style? Well in three easy steps… No. That's silly. You see,  it doesn’t come in a box. The prepackaged one size fits all Common Core does.
But creative teaching does embody particular qualities or elements.  Creative teaching is not the absence of standards. Creative teachers are not afraid of assessment or evaluation.  They are afraid of being reduced to a number.  They reject the idea that a score can tell you what you need to know about a child.
Creative teaching requires emergence. Sometimes we don’t know what going to happen or where a teachable moment in the classroom is going to go.  God forbid it might not even be on the test.  The fact that it matters to kids should matter more don’t you think?

Secondly, creative teaching as dangerous style requires collaboration. Teachers work together. Creativity isn’t something a teacher goes into the back room and mixes up in a beaker. It happens through our communities when we share a common vision and look toward our imagination for solutions and then enact them.  We must detach our schools and children from the “number thumpers” who want to isolate teachers from one another, and promote competition against one another as the model for students and schools. “Race to the Top” – the name  itself suggests that there must also be losers. 
Thirdly, creative teaching as dangerous style is transformative. Educational goals cannot always be predicted on the outcomes or objectives agenda written by someone hundreds of miles away in some office building working for a textbook company. He or she does not know the unique needs of individual children and how learning must be creatively accommodated to meet his or her needs. The writers of those scripted objectives do not know individual communities. The content of what we teach, even if its standards-based, must reflect the needs and identities of kids. Learning should be a process of transformation: Of self, of our understandings, of our communities and our world. The meaningful and powerful accommodations needed from day to day, from classroom to classroom, and child to child do not come in a teacher’s guide. They come from creative problem solving. They come from being open to imagine what each child needs, and how best to create that learning space for them. They do not come on a standardized test.

These are the skill sets that are lacking in our teacher preparation schools today. More so, now than ten years ago when I started as a teacher educator.  And this is because the disease of fear is trickling "upward."  Again, in academia we give great lip service to being creative at the university level.  But now, a lot of colleges of education will soon be beholden to the great and powerful accountability movement as well.  And if our preservice teachers don’t perform according to rank and file-they might not graduate.  So now, you have college professors afraid to teach creatively because they too must do what they’re told … or else.
Wayne Au writes:                                                                   
“Get one generation as the ‘tested generation’ and we’ll have a bunch of educators who cannot effectively imagine an alternative”

It’s not just enough to imagine other worlds and other possibilities-you have to believe you have the capabilities, the creative tools, to create them.

We must replace fear-based punitive measures in schools all over this country with measures that put into place supports for teachers to act creatively. To inspire their students to want to learn.  To attach real meaningful practices that foster a wide-awakeness in our children.
So ironically, the skills and capacities we desperately need the most, creative thinking to face the challenges of a changing and complex world, are the same skills we are so quick to eliminate.  Schools are now forced to forgo art, music, and PE in favor of more test prep.  We fire teachers and increase class size, while 45 billion dollars goes into the coffers of testing companies.  What does that say about us as a society?
We need to teach teachers how to be more creative, not how to be more compliant.
If we’re worried about keeping bad teachers in classrooms let’s “create” them out of schools.
Here’s how.
In the current system, where everything gets handed to teachers from a script and they’re told exactly what they need to do (or else…), and, if you were in a professional development training session being given exact orders on what to teach and how to teach it, the bad teachers might say, “Great! I don’t have to think about it. I’ll just skill drill and kill ‘em and go home.” Good teachers make a face in the back of room, and worry, “How am I going to make this interesting for my kids? This doesn’t really make a whole lotta sense,” and a great teacher might say “I’m outta here!” Or, they get pushed out for fighting back.

As Anthony Cody says: “I think it is likely to be some of the most creative teachers, working in the most challenging conditions, who are being encouraged to leave by the relentless pressure to increase test scores and the inequitable and unsustainable funding of high poverty schools.”
Now … In a system that expects creative thinking, here’s how the scenario to eliminate bad teaching might go:
During a faculty development session, teachers are encouraged to develop lessons (as one example) for  using the art work of Mondrian (a famous artist) in a geometry unit in which the teachers have to design and implement the connections between the artwork, the geometry learning goals, and their kids-- where they have to THINK and do some creative leg work. The bad teacher is going say “I’m outta here. This is too hard. It’s too much work.” The good teacher is going to nod their head and say, “Ok, let’s get to work.” And the great teacher is going to raise her hand and say “Wait a minute…I have an ever better idea!”

You see, great teachers don’t follow.  They lead.  And they’re greatness will not necessarily show up on the test scores, because you cannot measure creative outcomes on a bubble dot test, especially for students with ELL needs or special needs.  The tests set them up for failure anyway.  Those kids (or any kids) will not find their own creative greatness by filling in a bubble sheet with one right answer either.  We need to prepare teachers to be creative.  We need to teach them not how to simply follow the directions handed to them.  We need to teach them how to ask questions like “Does this even make the most sense for my kids?” and encourage them to take risks needed to really reach ALL children.
Creativity and complacency cannot exist in the same space.  Which do we want for our children and for ourselves? A world that is constructed for us by others, or one in which we possess the tools to make one for ourselves? What is our choice to be?
We need creativity, not compliance, to re-imagine and protect our public schools.  And we need teachers, great teachers, to show us how it can be done.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bruce for sharimg this blog -I can see why you ilke her writing so much.Well worrh the read.

Allan Alach said...

I thought that would appeal to you!

Bruce said...

Thanks Allan - like looking into our future