03 November 2009

Joy in School

Allow me to take you back eighteen years to the fall of 1991.  My high school twelfth grade IB English class was reading The Grapes of Wrath.  Groups of students were assigned the task of creating a product that would help the class further understand the time period in which the book takes place.  My group chose to create a photo essay using iconic, depression-era, black-and-white photos.

This was back in the day when the most we were taught to do on a computer (at least at our high school) was to program a turtle to move around the screen.  So, we headed for the library and checked out several coffee-table books containing photos from the depression and got to work selecting those that we felt had the greatest impact.  Then, we spent a long afternoon at the home of one of my group members using a tripod-mounted video camera to shoot a few seconds of video of each image.  Imagine: find the next image, lay it down flat, zoom in the camera, record for about five seconds, and then repeat.  Over and over for several hours.  It was a laborious process, but there was joy and camaraderie in the collaborative effort.  (Plus, I vividly recall the friend who was hosting our group making me a tape of U2's newly released Achtung Baby with some B-sides and rarities while we worked.  I still have that tape, but no tape player...)

To present the project in class, we played the video and, since we didn't have the capabilities to overdub the video with music, we played a CD of some melancholy bluegrass/folk music.  I can still recall sitting in class watching the video, feeling proud of the product, proud of our accomplishment, and emotional as it sank in what life was really like during the depression. 

So, why the trip down memory lane?  Yesterday morning, Alfie Kohn tweeted a link to a piece that he had written five years ago entitled, Feel-Bad Education: The Cult of Rigor and the Loss of Joy.  As I was home sick in bed, I had the time to read it and found it entered into my thoughts throughout the day.  Then, (and I love it when this happens) later in the day when I opened Google Reader I found a post by Dean Shareski with his reflections on the same article that he had seen on Twitter. 

Rather than share additional comments when I feel some great points have been made, I'd like to raise a few questions.  When I completed the photo essay group project, I felt a great deal of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment and yes, joy.  Today, given the advances in technology, my fourth graders could create a more professional looking presentation with the same content in a fraction of the time.  But would they feel the same sense of accomplishment?  Can we ensure that our students will feel a sense of accomplishment--and joy--when they complete a project, with technology or without?  Is it all about making the project authentic and relevant?  Is that enough?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Image: Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange from the Wikipedia Commons


Mary DY said...

Kip, thanks for bringing this article to my attention. I would add passion as another emotive ally in the classroom. When students talk about the teachers they learned the most from, a teacher's enthusiaism is an important part of the mix. Teaching mathematics to future teachers who are sometimes not positive on the subject matter, I challenge them with the notion that every child deserves to learn mathematics from a teacher who both understands math and sees it as a valuable tool for life.

And the ad nauseum testing has carried us way past the boundaries of making sense. In mathematics, the powers that be continue to assess tiny skills in isolation, because the more comprehensive skills of problem solving and "thinking mathematically" are difficult to measure. Sadly, mathematical power requires much more than a checklist of skills. The meaning behind the mechanics develops slowly over time, and I continue to be amazed by the lack of "sense-making" in my students' experience when they come to me after their high school experience.

So that is why my little classroom is a mission field, devoted to challenging my students with interesting hands-on task that allow them to "figure things out" for themselves. I maintain that true self-confidence comes from solving challenging problems, not from doing well on routine tasks.

DRS said...

I don't think this has anything to do with technology. Hard work can be joyful. Joyful and easy aren't synonymous. I once heard someone say, "teaching is helping kids have fun doing real hard stuff". The word fun needs some definition and that's why joy is the more appropriate term for me.

There is nothing that sucks the joy out of learning more than spending countless hours on things that's only relevance to someone is that it's going to be on the test, or that they'll need to learn this for the next grade. That's weak and meaningless.

I like what Mary DY said at the end of her comment.

Thanks for linking and sharing.

Mary DY said...

This announcement came into my email today, sort of serendipitous to hear about "joy in school" twice in one week. The books sounds intriguing. Mary


Teacher Book Discussion: Wounded by School
Join your peers for an online book discussion! During the week of Nov. 16-20, in our forums section, we will be discussing Kirsten Olson's Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture (Teachers College Press). In this highly praised book, Olson looks at the ways conventional school practices can weaken students' sense of self-worth and what educators can do to improve instructional responsiveness.

Jennifer Matson said...

This is an interesting point to bring up. I believe that as long as the project involves creativity and genuine knowledge, students can have a great sense of satisfaction even with the assistance of technology. The ease of portraying their thoughts through technology doesn't mean that they didn't need to plan, learn the concepts, and form their unique creation.

Sarah Lidgard said...

I think this is such a wonderful thing to discuss, for the children of today are living in a generation of technology. Everything tends to revolve around a form of technology. It is up to their teachers and other adults to encourage creativity, individuality, and originality while working on projects. Technology can be a great asset if used to assist in learning and not do the learning for the child. Joy in school can still exist with technology, it just cannot take over the learning process!

Kellyannrobbins said...

From the stand point of both a student and a teacher I have mixed feeling about technology projects. Being a slight perfectionist I have felt that the use of technology has helped give my work a more professional look with out the added time. However, isn't the time and effort spent on the projects what give us the satisfaction in a good grade?

We live in a world that is forever connected and providing immediate feed back. This affects attention and possibly the effort a student is willing to put into a project. While I believe that technology is a great thing to aid in learning and help accommodate for students with special needs, another question might be, is there such thing as too much technology?

Unknown said...

I think that that sense of accomplishment and pride is still felt by students as the go through the creative process. This sense of having created somethign original comes from the process and not the resources used. Whether a project is created on a computer or with film, it's the power to create that really encourages students.