Friday, April 27, 2007

Learning is about having a passion.

For my 500th blog I return to one of my favourite writers activist Ernesto Sirolli for inspiration. Visit his site for his ideas . I heard him speak at a reading conference - he is an impressive speaker.
Passion , he believes, is the starting point for any learning; once passion is involved skills will be learned, doors unlocked and dreams become reality.
But you won't see the word passion used in any Ministry documents!
For passions to be realized learners need emotional safety to take learning risks and respect given to their work . This underpins the beliefs of creative teachers in any field. And yet, Sirolli says, this is not enough. I f we are not doing what we know in our hearts we ought to be doing being loved is not enough.
Sirolli believes there is no limit to personal growth, quoting Abraham Maslow who said, 'A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself'.
Isn't helping students discover their passion(s) the true role of education? How would we design person centred schools to ensure all students innate talents were able to recognised and developed?
We need, he says, to have a positive vision of human beings and believe in the intrinsic goodness of all individuals and then to do everything possible to fulfill all students personal talents. This, Sirolli believes, would lead to the development of healthy society. If people can be assisted to do well what they love they will not only make a living and be happier but will contribute to making a better society.
Perhaps this is is behind the current vogue for 'personalised learning', a 21st C version of what we use to call student centred learning? If it is it will need a dramatic change of mindsets in those currently 'delivering' current curriculums - and it will need new flexible school structures to allow this 'new' kind of person centred learning. Nothing short of a cultural change will do.
If talent and creativity is the new 'capital' of an age some call the 'Second Renaissance' we will have no choice.
To have dreams, Sirolli writes, is easy - to transform them into reality requires passion , skill and perseverance. 'Nothing of any significance', he continues,' can be made without the blending of individual commitment and the physical ability to make the dream real.'
For teachers, as facilitators, what is required needs to be based on the understanding that creativity, motivation, even genius , lies within all students. The teachers role is to help each student discover their dreams and transform them into good work.
It is passion that propels such learning and enables learners to continue when things aren't working it - and the learning of skills in the process enables success. True teachers remove obstacles and help their students acquire the skills to transform learners' dreams into meaningful and rewarding work.
Sirolli writes: 'Creative teachers have no expectations, no plans of action, no targets, and no performance criteria to fulfil. They tread gently, they force nothing....Things happen as if by magic - but it isn't magic. Things happen because they have faith in people, because they are positive about their work and serene in the manner they carry it out....Facilitators are successful people who love to see others succeed.
This is in contradiction to current technocratic approaches to teaching and learning - approaches that have resulted in efficient but hardly creative learning.
The earlier creativity of the 60s, Sirolli believes, failed not because of a lack of ideas but lack of skills. It was, a generation without masters. To be genius in your own mind is meaningless; you have the skills to dance it, build it, grow it, communicate it and to share it with the world.
What makes a society prosper or not, Sirolli believes, is the collective quality of its citizens, he writes, our greatest assets must be our students' energy, imagination and skill. Our commitment, as teachers, is ensure they do good work by ensuring they develop appropriate skills, able to work in depth by doing fewer things well so as to realize excellence, and most of all, to develop the courage to fulfil their ambitions.'
This begs the question of what is the vision for our country in the 21stC? What is the role of government to create the conditions to realize our collective and individual dreams? What attitudes will need to be challenged and changed for us all to thrive in what will be an exiting but unpredictable future?
Planners need to plan for freedom , to plan to make things possible, to plan for flexibility, for reorganizing, restructuring and reconsidering. Planning , including strategy planning, Sirolli believes is over-rated. Many innovations come about through spontaneity, idiosyncratic inspiration and even mistakes. Planning is about providing infrastructure. All too often imposed plans result in unintended harmful consequences!
Nobody can predict what will happen in the future - the challenge will be to thrive midst complexity and to do this will require an open mindset of all citizens
Our collective future will depend on the creativity of passionate people. Passionate people, Sirolli says, are innovators and entrepreneurs. To bring about positive changes we need tap into the source of innovation and energy - the individual talents of all citizens.
Such a revolution has its genesis in how we 'see' education - we need an education system that values all students as unique beings. We need a system that encourages all students to take responsibility to make a positive use of whatever talents and passions they possess. Every student has inherent possibilities to be discovered . Too many student resent what is imposed on them and many, so called successful students, fail to discover what it is that truly interests them.
Schools need to find out what each child loves doing. For many students education is dream gone wrong. We need to help all students believe in and trust themselves - this must be preferable, Sirolli writes, rather than trying to comply to the impossible dreams of the planners and bureaucrats. Schools should make it easy for all students to learn.
Teachers need to challenge current assumptions, compliance requirements and structures that limit their ability to realize their students self fulfilment.
The tide is turning against authoritarianism in every field towards choice, respect and empowerment. Good people create a good society. Schools ought to be leading the change.
Teachers have an exciting creative role to transform the system from the grassroots - to tap , as Sirolli writes, the creative spirit in the young.
I am with Ernesto!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Memorable teaching.

Observational drawing as part of a fish study - 10 year old.

A professor at Harvard in 1830, Lois Agassiz, had an effective but memorable technique with his doctoral students.

When his students first entered his laboratory, expecting a lecture or an assignment, they would find in front of them a tray with a dead fish in it. Agassiz would say to his students, 'look at your fish', and then he would leave the room. An hour later the professor would return and the students, trying to please would describe their observations. Agassiz would listen and and the repeat, 'look at your fish.What do you see?'

Invariably, Agassiz's students counted scales, drew likenesses, measured, dissected, took notes, and comprehensively ascertained all there was to know about the fish.

After repeating this scenario various times over a couple of days Agassiz would ask , 'do you see the fish yet?'

What he was doing was encouraging his students to know something well.To realize that what was to be discovered lies already to hand , before ones eyes.

It seems counter intuitive in this age of speed and the Internet to encourage students to look carefully and to think slowly but it this experience our students need today. Observation, which involves all the senses ( and especially with a smelly fish) , leads to questioning and imagining - the source of authentic learning.

And the material to observe lies all around - there for the taking.Our students see a lot but too often notice little.

Observation is key skill all too often rushed through with only a cursory glance and little reflection .We should do more of it.

What we what in our schools is memorable learning - the positive sort!

Monday, April 23, 2007

ANZAC display

Left.An effective class display about ANZAC Day

Below a visual reminder of a special day.

ANZAC Day mini study

ANZAC Day. Painting by Australian Artist Ken Done.

This school week, broken by ANZAC day, is an ideal moment to for the students in your class to think about what ANZAC Day means to them and to us all as a country.

By using the two days before, and the days following, a small, but focused, in depth mini study could be completed.

ANZAC day is a vital part of our New Zealand heritage and it would be interesting to see what ideas your students have picked up through their life experiences and in turn how much , you as teacher, can help them gain a deeper understanding.

The best thing for you as teacher to focus the study will be to find and research the ANZAC kit in the school and any associated school journal or newspaper articles. Sharing with fellow teachers is a good idea to develop ideas.

To introduce the study one idea might be to give your students a 'test' to see what their 'prior ideas' about ANZAC are. Select a few issues for them to respond to such as: What does ANZAC mean? Where is Gallipoli? Who were our soldier's fighting there? Why do we wear red poppies? You may find other equally interesting issues to gain their prior idea with.

The data collected could be used to graph ( for maths) the classes understanding of ANZAC and the test repeated at the end of the study to see how their ideas have changed.

To continue the study it would be useful to ask the class what questions they have about ANZAC Day. Once again questions might be answered by class members if that think they have some idea to share - their answers will provide further evidence of their prior understandings. Select out a few key questions for the class to research or break the class into small groups to research questions. For any questions selected there needs to be resource material available.

The scope of the study will focus not only on the siege at Gallipoli and the Western Front but could represent all the wars NZ as been involved in as well as philosophical discussions on war. This will depend on the age of the students.

For those teachers who make use of the ideas of multiple intelligences, or integrated studies, it is worth while developing questions, or tasks, that make use of the various ways of experiencing or expressing the study. There could be data ( maths) about casualties to be discovered; in the language area students could write descriptions using their research about the either Gallipoli or the Western Front, or write letters home to their parents telling how bad the situation is; for art they could recreate scenes, research uniforms, and paint images of war; for music there are war songs to discovered and learn; for drama scenes could recreated. At the very least they could draw red poppies and white crosses and make a small display for the wall with a few important comments or poems about war. Some students may have access to great grandparents who they might be able to interview about World War Two.

After ANZAC day itself students may have further ideas to discuss. Many class members may have been to an ANZAC ceremony.

Following ANZAC Day research, art and language tasks will need to be completed and displayed.

A repeat of the first 'prior knowledge' test will show students how much they have learned.

ANZAC Day is a good example of an 'emergent' curriculum or what was once called a 'teachable moment.

Too good not to make use of.

Learn to share ideas

This image of a child shielding her work from prying eyes is one we, thankfully, do not now often see .

Such a child, relying on her own ideas, is inadvertently reducing her learning capabilities.

The arm, placed around exercise book or exam, was used in traditional schooling to protect others from seeing ones answers. Cheating was a big issue in such schools.

Mind you co-operative learning can create a similar situation if some students let others do the work for them. Hopefully most teachers are aware of this 'freeloading' and design projects with their students to avoid such poor learning.

Sharing ideas is vital in learning, enabling others to take advantage of ideas, as well as being able to gain insight from others. And sharing allows ideas to be examined, questioned and challenged.

Sharing is equally vital in the work situation where many of the tasks are arranged in projects requiring teamwork. People who are secretive with their ideas, trying to keep any credit for themselves, will find themselves left out of the learning opportunities provided by sharing.

The problem is with people and organisations that are not open to new ideas that they become stale by missing out on the innovative energy provided through people sharing ideas.

It is important to appreciate that the more ideas you give away will result in more ideas that will come back to you. As well you will always be working on the next idea in your head - an idea the germ of which you may have picked up from someone else. Anyway no idea belongs to one person - they are aways out there waiting to be picked up and shared and, if they they are worthwhile they act as if they have a mind of their own - and in the right conditions will spread creating an 'idea virus'.

Schools should be a environment dedicated to developing such co-operative minds; minds able to discover, grow and create new ideas.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Simple accounting or creativity?

Superficial accounting?
The Leader of the Opposition Mr Keys presents a friendly appearance but lets not forget he is a politician striving to gain the ultimate power in next years elections.
His recent speeches have outlined his ideas about the need for primary schools to introduce national testing in literacy and numeracy. Nothing new in this, he is simply dusting off one of his parties ideas from the past.
On the surface it sounds appealing. Shouldn't all students be measured regularly to see how well they are doing in literacy and numeracy? And ought not parents be able to see the results and how well their children ( and school) stacks up against others? Lots of votes in this - along with tougher ideas on crime and the welfare state. After all didn't John Keys successfully make from state house environment - and if he could , well why can't all the others?
Even the radio and TV commentators fall in line with Mr Key's thoughts - mind you they are not known for their in-depth thinking on the issue.
Before we all rush in to sort out teachers it would be advisable to think about some of the consequences of such simplistic targets. As it is said, it is not the targets you hit that count - it's the one you miss because you weren't looking!
In the UK students are tested and schools results are published in what are called 'league tables' creating a winners and losers situation. In the US the President as introduced his 'No Child Left Behind ' Bill which is proving proving equally counterproductive. In the UK, after showing improvement, because of the pressure and imposed approaches, scores are now levelling off. In the USA endless so called 'research led' programmes have been introduced with varying success - most involving dull worksheets featuring phonics. In both countries the price paid is less emphasis on the creative arts, cultural studies, environmental and social issues, and developing students' talents. Busy teachers, who jobs are at stake, will simply focus on what is being tested narrowing the curriculum in the process. This is what has happened in the UK and the US.
As a result, in an age that require more and more initiative, spontaneity, creativity and teamwork, both teachers and students simply do not have the time to concern themselves with such vital issues.
So as we reach toward to what some are calling the 'second renaissance', or 'a new age of creativity', Mr Keys is looking back to a Victorian 'three Rs' vision. Not that literacy and numeracy are not important.Far from it, but they must be seen as 'foundation skills' that must be in place so a more relevant inspirational curriculum can be taken advantage of.
And if anyone had take the time to visit a primary school, they would see that these basic skills already take up most of the school day - as one UK commentator has said , 'the evil twins of literacy and numeracy nave gobbled up the rest of the curriculum.'
A focus on literacy and numeracy, and the associated testing regimes, will inadvertently cause schools to provide an impoverished curriculum that will effect the poorest children of all - where most of the so called 'achievement tail' resides - a 'tail' created by issues beyond the schools reach.
There are better answers out there but they mightn't appeal to middle class voters - which is what the next election will be all about. It is all about winning not education.
What we want is intellectual courage and vision from our leaders as we enter a 21st century - a century that will depend on the creativity of all its citizens.
The answers do not lie back in the past, but this is where Mr Keys is looking it seems.
We deserve better.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Chinese lessons part 2

Progressive ideas come and go in any society depending on the current political climate. While political leaders in the West are pushing traditional 'back to basics', testing and narrow accountability Asia is beginning to appreciate the need to develop creative ideas.

Progressive ideas are not new in China.In 1939 John Dewey toured China and his idea were well received even if interpreted to suit Chinese culture of the time. Today the most revered educator is Harvard's Howard Gardner appreciated for his liberating ideas about multiple intelligences. The Chinese however place a greater emphasis on instructional mastery of identified talents than Gardner might expect.

Liberated China has almost achieved its goal of mass education and is considering a pedagogical renaissance as a growing middle class expands its horizons.

China is beginning to realize that there is a price to pay for its current narrow rigid education; initiative and creativity now being seen as vital skills in global community. To continue their current economic success there is a need for them to escape from their straight jacketed system. Such a change will not be easy. Big changes cause concern in any society and many Chinese parents believe that their current exam system is fairer. There will aways be conflict between conservative traditional conformist old style schooling and more flexible and innovative innovations

But changes are sure to come. If China can combine its traditional emphasis on effort, diligence and basic skills with a greater emphasis on talent development and creativity who knows what they will achieve.

Increasingly worldwide countries are seeing the need to 'personalize' learning and to cultivate the creativity of all students . The 'creative 'capital' of all citizens will need to be realized for any country to thrive in the future.

Ironically while Asian countries seem to be developing an appreciation of of this need to encourage creativity Western politicians are constraining such developments by introducing narrow accountability measures that distort liberating educational aims.

Although change is no simple thing Confucian thought may inspire the Chinese: 'A person is not simply a container, a teacher should be the fire, light the match and should know what sort of wood they are lighting'.

Long term change will be a matter of getting the balance right between 'adventure seeking' versus 'scripted' learning. Chinese politicians have the opportunity to broaden their curriculum and to nurture and not infantilize their students. If they begin to see the need for their students to be braver and more confident, able to work things out for themselves, who knows what they might achieve. Particularly if the West is trying to return to more basic learning as a reaction to Asian success in international testing.

All too often currently Chinese students just go along the road laid out by their parents. Chinese students, known for their diligence, silence, obedience and academic success could be transformed into being more active and adventurous. The future will demand that all students know how to define their own futures and are able to contribute to there wider community and society.

A generation of such independent minded Chinese students with wider horizons is a prospect that may inspire some trepidation as well as optimism amongst Chinese leaders. By combining academic and creative prowess would become the imaginative hybrids that a global society (and China) needs.

In all this ferment her are lessons for the West to take notice of. Conservative politicians, who pander to their equally conservative middle class voters, may undermine their own countries survival.

No country has yet to develop a true 21st century talent based education system - the first to do so will the winner in what some are calling a second renaissance - a new 'post industrial' society.

It will be about the country that can combine the best of past and new ideas about how students learn.

China ( and Asia) and the West are coming from different positions.

Only the future will tell who will make the wisest decisions.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Culture, Politics or Education?

This month there was an interesting article in the New York Times about a highly successful Chinese students called Meijie studying at Harvard.

It was great story about the interface of culture, politics and education and relevant to both Asian and Western cultures.

As part of her studies Meijie addressed the question of what is success. Was it financial worth? Moral perception? And how do families, schools and popular culture invite students to think of success?

Meijie herself embodied success in Chinese terms - a nation whose mission is to become a 21 st century incubator of world class talent. Meijie had become uncomfortable with all the adulation she received from her homeland and began to question the meticulous regime that had produced her. A regime believed in by Chinese parents for their , often, single child - 'little emperors' as they are called.

Meijie background was a little unusual as her parents had allowed her to excel in a range of activities outside the classroom and as result she had come to believe that the last thing Chinese students needed was a blind reverence to a narrow academic education and all the pressure that goes with it. She felt that the Chinese system was overly driven by an exam system that led to a cramming ethos that eroded student curiosity and creativity.

Education in China is a family endeavor worthy of great sacrifice. The desire to find and promote talent has been a long tradition in Chinese culture along with a belief in personal effort and diligence. Western education, in contrast, has placed greater faith in personal expression and talent.

Meijie believed that her American experience had led her to appreciate the less pressurized and more appealing approach to learning. As result of her experience Meijie set about to develop exchange summer programmes for Chinese students exposing them to a more 'freewheeling' system with small group discussions on a wide range of issues offering excitement and and social discovery allowing students to try new things and to connect with one another rather than compete for prizes.

In China there is a growing concern that too many students have become stressed out, test-acing drones who are failing to to acquire the skills of creativity, flexibility, initiative, teamwork and leadership that are felt necessary for success in a global world.

Meijie experience had led her to believe that too many students arrive at college exhausted and emerge from it unenlightened at the very time her country needs a talented elite of innovators. The result of the 'stuffed duck' education system may be counterproductive!. Chinese students do well if their tasks are defined but if the tasks are ambiguous they get lost and have to ask for help.What is missing, all too often, is imagination and independence.

So it seems ironic while Western counties are seeking to emulate Asian success in maths and science while at the same time Asian countries are trying to introduce critical thinking, versatility and leadership! While China is deciding to loosen its administrative control Western countries are demanding more narrow accountability from their more decentralized systems.

When China starts to develop student talents and creativity it will effect the whole world.

China has no intention of jettisoning its strong Asian heritage of discipline, a belief in effort, diligence and family commitment but there is growing agreement to move away from a conformist, adult driven hyper competitive academic system. There is a growing appreciation of the need to help students to 'learn how to learn' , to enquire and to be more creative.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

School Reform: more political than educational

Schools for conformity or creativity?
I can't resist sharing some ideas about school change by David Chapman ( Massey University College of Education) I read recently.
David sets out to explain that schooling is more political than educational, particularly over the past 20 years.
'Every government has attempted to massage the education system to align with their political agenda', he writes. Just recently,for example, we have seen the Leader of the Opposition bring out national testing in literacy and numeracy - an idea that has voter 'clout' but disastrous educational consequences.
Chapman gives a brief history of recent educational reform that few of todays teachers will be aware of. In 1984 Merv Wellington ( National) published a review of the core curriculum - a 'back to basics' move. Then the following Labour Government , after a wide ranging consultation process ( which was a brilliant piece of democracy) , published an Education Review (87) resulting in a draft curriculum. All this was thrown out, ironically, by David Lange leading a 'new' Labour Government obsessed with a 'marked forces' agenda. This led to the abolition of Education Boards and to the establishment of 'self managing schools' governed by locally elected Board of Trustees. As a consequence of this move there is now little co-ordination between schools and a lack of focus on teaching and learning.
Along comes Lockwood Smith ( National) with a new very rational curriculum agenda ( learning areas, strands, levels and countless learning objectives) which asked teachers to check that all students had covered all the defined learning objectives. And to add to this Lockwood introduced a new secondary qualification system ( we now kn0w as the NCEA). Both resulted in impossible assessment tasks for teachers.
A returning Labour Government modified expectations and in 1999 introduced a 'curriculum stockake' ( along with other countries who had found that they also had asked far too much of their teachers). The 'stockake' has resulted in the current 'new' draft curriculum. And in the future National promises a return to testing basics while the current government is talking about educating for the 'knowledge society' and the need to 'personalise' learning.
And what, Chapman asks, has all this change given us? Very Little, he replies referring to international comparisons.
This is not rocket science he suggest as 'new' curriculums still have to be taught by the same teachers! And he criticizes the 'top down' professional development as being inadequate.
One of his conclusions , referring to our long poor 'achievement tail', is that this stems from socio economic issues resulting from the ideological market forces political changes of the 1980s ( introduced by Labour but continued with enthusiasm by National). These ideological changes ( to develop a lean , mean , competitive New Zealand ) have exaggerated social differences.
If we want to improve educational performance we need to address these social problems and not simplistically blame the schools for students who are failing.
But, he also concludes, that if we want to improve students success we need to focus on teacher quality and teaching and learning.
I would think that if we had focused on recognising, and sharing, the ideas of creative teachers and innovative schools in the first place, and if the various governments had seen their role as creating the conditions and providing resources, we would be in a far better position than we are in now.
And, as well, we would have teachers who have faith in their ability to develop new approaches to teaching and learning without distorting and disabling the total system.
The politicians have had their day -time to put the trust back to those who have the practical experience to develop new ideas school by school, community by community.
As for John Keys he may have his chance to introduce his basic testing but time will prove him wrong as well.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

We need a new Vision for education

Putting the heart back into schooling

Sooner or later people in power will realize that it is not the failing students that are the problem. Maybe the problem are the assumptions that underpin our schools that are failing our stuents?

It seems it is easier to shift the deck chairs on the Titanic than to worry about the faulty engineering. And those who have captured the 'social capital' in our society are not about to give it away -even if in the long run such short term selfish thinking is disastrous.

Being critical doesn't get you many friends but being critical is required if we are ever to change the conservative climate of thinking that determines current 'mainstream' thinking. The only way to gain any purchase is to 'spread' a better story that resonates with what people want - even if such thoughts haven't yet reached the surface. It is always too easy to fix what is broken than to try out a new idea.

To change people's minds those who can 'see the light' need to have the courage to challenge the current assumptions that underpin our struggling current institutions and organisations.

In education have suffered from disastrous reforms seen at their worst by the 'back to basics' of the 'No Child Left Behind' of the USA and the narrow 'league tables' of the UK. Now, in NZ, we have the Leader of the Opposition pushing for a similar approach! These technocratic reforms have led to imposed curriculums and formulaic teaching, with measurable targets as the only barometer of of value. This narrow approach reflects the dominance: of a failing privatisation ideology; rampant consumerism; and an economic competitiveness philosophy where everything - including achievement, is to be measured.

The trouble is that there are important things that cannot be audited in this simplistic way. Schools should be about helping students grapple with the moral, cultural, and spiritual challenges of their world, says the author of a recent book, 'Losing Heart'. The author believes we need a powerful vision of education that focuses on helping young people 'appreciate and navigate a world of increasingly and varied and interrelated identities'.

Students, the book continues, need to see themselves as belonging to a complex interrelated and diverse world community. Students will need to develop a positive self identity so as to be comfortable with crossing cultural borders. All to often such diversity is currently interpreted through fear and anxiety when it ought to be seen as a celebration of diversity.

This vision is a long way from a simplistic literacy and numeracy achievement culture.

Students need to leave their school with a positive sense of values , aware of the need to sustain our delicate inter related world ecology, and respectful and tolerant of others who are different, if we are every to avoid the clashes of cultures that mark our present world.

We need students who leave formal schooling, at any level, who have a responsibility to value the common good of others and to be able to envision new ways of being and relating to one another. A 'winner take all' society is doomed to collapse at some point.

A new vision needs to reinventing democracy to suit a future age age as far too many of our current institutions, designed in an industrial age, are creating as many problem as they are solving. Schools can no longer demand conformity and be 'sorters' of students but need to develop the talents and aptitudes of all 'our' students.

There are creative teachers in our schools but they need to be encouraged to articulate their ideals and live them out in their work. Developing such a creative vision needs to be the central challenge for all involved in education. But they will need help , says the book 'Losing Heart', 'to navigate the current realities without losing heart themselves.'

For those who want to change any aspect of our current system it is not an easy road to follow. Those who see themselves as 'winners' in our current society will take offence and call for reactionary polices. The prophetic voice is often not a popular one until a critical mass of converts develops.

Last words from the book 'Losing Heart':

'Education needs to be understood as more than simply a mirror that reflects the existing culture; it may also represent a light that directs our way to a more hopeful future.'

Let's hope so!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Freedom Writers

View the video of the film 'Freedom Writers' for inspiration.

A few years ago my sister in law asked me to get a book called 'Freedom Writers' from Amazon for her. It was based on the powerful writing of a class of disadvantaged students from Los Angeles deemed 'unteachable' by their schools.

My sister in law teaches at a big West Auckland School which has a mix of students from a range of cultures. I am not sure how much use was made of the book at the time but it is interesting to know that her school is strongly involved in the Te Kotahitanga approach which is also about realtionships, valuing students 'voice' and respect for students' culture.

Anyway, back to the film which was a battle between uncaring traditional school and a lone creative teacher who really cared for her underprivileged students ; students who lived with first hand exposure to gang violence in a racially divided society. Her students came from African- American, Latino, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Caucasian cultures - the latter very much a minority. All her students had lost friends or family as a result of gang warfare!

The teacher, Erin Gruwell, developed a philosophy that valued and promoted and eventually transformed her students lives. All the more challenging as Erin was a beginning teacher at the time and had to work in an environment of staff and administrative opposition.

After attempting to introduce a traditional curriculum she eventually gained her students respect by learning to listen to the voices, pain and stories of her students. They had made it clear to her that they were not interested in the literature she was trying to introduce them to. Eventually she asked her students to write dairies of their experiences, in any form they wished, and that she would only read them if they asked her to. This diary writing evolved out of studying the Holocaust through the diaries of Ann Franck, and other similar personal stories of bravery against the odds, that resonated with the students own experiences.

As the students began to feel safe, unconditionally accepted and understood they wrote their stories that eventually were published in a book called the 'Freedom Writers'.

The film is he story of a passionate and idealistic teacher but her ideas could be applied in any class at any level. That her teenage students were called 'unteachable' just made her task all the more difficult.

When around the world school are concerned about teenage disengaged learners the book ( and film) provides answers to the problem that go well beyond simplistic 'back to basic' solutions. Students need rich real and relevant students that they can explore in depth.

Erin Gruwell's programme, based on real life experiences, promoted diversity and challenged her students to rethink their rigid racial stereotypes and to become critical thinkers and citizens for future change. Her dedication to her students changed them from apathetic, frustrated, and racially biased to a closely knit but tolerant family or, in current jargon', a 'learning community;.

All teachers, but particularly those who teach teenagers who have lost their love of learning would benefit from applying Erin Gruwell's philosophy.

The philosophy she developed was not anything new - but she had the courage to develop her own approach. Actions aways speak louder than words.

For those who wish to learn more visit the Freedom Writers website. Or just go and see the film.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Developing the creative habit.

Students need in depth experiences to learn the creative habit.
All creative artists know that creativity is the result of good work habits; that to achieve success requires discipline and practice.
One of the hardest aspects is starting, says creativity expert Robert Fritz, 'this is where we are most at peril of turning back, chickening quit, giving up, or going the wrong way.' Successful artists often develop strict routines to avoid putting creativity to one side.
There are moments of inspiration no doubt but most creativity is not a product of inspiration but what Fritz calls, 'a state of mind'. What really counts, he says, ' is the habit of creating when you don't feel like it, creating when the circumstances are not quite right, creating no matter what else is going on in your life.'
When Robert de Niro was asked what makes a great actor he replied, 'You've got to practice.' He goes on to say it takes real work to 'become' the part you are to play. So it is evident that the creative process takes practice rather than something one tries from time to time - it is more a way of life. 'Creating begets more creating', and, 'it doesn't matter what the subject matter is, be it a dance, a dramatic performance, or a life,' says Fritz.
If we really want to develop creative talented citizens with minds open to new ideas then schools would need to change dramatically and place developing a disciplined creative habit in all students at the centre of all they do. Creative people are able to live with a creative orientation rather than simply responding to prevailing circumstances.
The so called basics are obviously important but they must only be seen as important foundation and not the total focus of schooling. Someone ought to pass this idea on to John Keys , the Leader of the Opposition in New Zealand, whose latest plans to focus on testing literacy and numeracy seem to be leading us to the anti creative 'league tables' of the UK and testing mania of the USA.
Creativity is also required in mathematics and literature but it cannot be developed by an emphasis on a judgemental comparative testing programme. More worrying are the side effects ( seen in both the US and the UK) of such testing regimes leading to formulaic teaching and a narrowing of the curriculum which usually meaning a pushing out of creative subjects. As we enter a creative era this would seem a stupid step.
Creativity is an ideal way to help students learn to deal with failure and to learn from it. Mastery of any process takes time and we only get better as we practice our talents.
Creativity also 'teaches' that we are all different ( whereas testing compares everyone against the norm) and schools, if they were creative, should help each person find his or her own way of learning. This must be what is meant by 'personalised learning'?
Creative people don't get sidelined worrying about process ( another emphasis seen in too many of our schools). Creative people want to create something. They are always in some sort of 'creative tension' trying to realise what it is they are setting out to achieve using whatever circumstances come their way. They are in, what Fritz calls, 'a learning mode, ready to take failure and success as experiments to use as the foundations for future creating'. They are both detached and involved - immersed and able to step back to see how things are going. The ability to step back is the product of true involvement and is focused on tine creation not the creator.
It would be great if politicians appreciated that this creative learning habit is what learning is all about - not students achieving achievement levels or passing tests. But I guess it gets votes appealing to those who like simplistic answers to complicated problems.!
No wonder I can't think of any schools that are truly based on talent development and creativity.