Monday, September 22, 2014

This I Believe

For the past several months, I've been lucky to be part of the Central Virginia Writers' Project. At our two-week seminar this summer, we were asked to write our own versions of a "This I Believe" essay. Not only did this assignment give me a chance to distill some of my own beliefs about why what I do in the classroom matters, my eleventh grade team had already decided to use this prompt as our beginning essay assignment. So, I had a ready-made piece to share with my students as I asked them to share their own beliefs, and here it is for you all:

I believe we have messed up just about everything we can when it comes to public education in the United States. We expect students to learn without showing them what great magic learning can work in their own lives and the lives of others. We expect students to learn for the sake of the economy and not for the sake of themselves, and then we berate them for being so selfish as to skip class or not do their homework.

There is still some magic in elementary school. A dear friend of mine recently inspired her students to design and build their own butterfly garden when they can research, write, and sit in awe of creatures they’ve helped to save.

But the magic is seeping out of the walls of our secondary schools. Students are expected to sit still for forty-five minutes, take notes in the preferred method du jour, dutifully pass tests, and move on to the next subject when the bell rings. If they are lucky, they might get two bathroom passes a semester and a few teachers who have decided not to ride the wave of standardized test hysteria.

I believe that if we trust teachers to design project-based assessments, we will have a picture of where our students are succeeding and where they need more help. I believe if we paid teachers a wage commensurate to the many hours we work above our contracts, we wouldn’t have a shortage of bright, dedicated professionals who are respected by students, their parents, and their communities. I believe if teachers had smaller caseloads, students would receive more meaningful instruction. I believe if we created a ladder for teachers to grow professionally without leaving the classroom, we would see fewer than half of all teachers leave in their first five years of teaching.

I believe if we increased the minimum wage, we would increase student learning. I believe if showed students learning to read and read well means they could visit the moon or the ocean or the next Odyssey of the Mind field trip, we would have millions more finish college. I believe if we put students in small groups according to their interests and not any perceived ability level and turned them loose on a project, they’d learn more than they ever would in any Advanced Placement or college prep class.
I believe in the promise of public education to incorporate us all to a cause higher than ourselves. I believe our schools can be places where students delve deep into a topic and come out better learners, citizens, and people, for the experience.

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