Saturday, April 30, 2011

Perennial projects

At the start of the school year, back when the sunlight was fading and squirrels were fattening up, each student picked a tree to watch. Call it phenology, call it botany, call it whatever you want, but it's really just observing, and few of us do that well. I call it the Perennial Project.

Some wise people back in the 1890's decided that biology should be the first course of science for high school students because biology was, back in the day, all about observing and categorizing living things. If you care to study the world, you need to learn how to look.

[T]he elements of biology serve specially well as a means to cultivate the power of accurate observation (i.e., the exercise of perception regulated and clarified through direct subordination to reflection) specially adapted to exercise of judgment.

That biology is now taught as something else does not deny the wisdom of the Committee of Fifteen.   Learning how to look is particularly relevant in a culture that encourages others to do your observations for you. Judgment without observation may be good for a consumer economy, but has predictably disastrous results for a functioning democracy. (I said functioning....)


Kids occasionally need to be led by the nose, and asking them to spend a few minutes outside each week staring at a tree does require some external motivation, as prickly as that has become in the ultra-chic eduworld. I toggled the grades in a way that doing the observations helped a bit, but screwing up did not sink them.

Kids need room to screw up, lots of room, especially when asked to stand outside staring at a stupid tree making this stupid drawing for this stupid class. Most students trust me, as they trust most teachers, despite a steady stream of evidence that the trust may be misplaced; I take advantage of this.

This will go somewhere, I tell them. I promise.

Then winter comes, and the trees, mildly interesting to some in autumn, "die." Now the stupid teacher wants me to stand in the stupid cold to draw a stupid picture of a stupid dead tree.

A lot of them fake it. They do not know that I know, but (for the most part), I let it go. They put their drawings in a folder, and come mid-January, I stop asking for reports.

Early March, I started it up again. Find a bud on your tree, measure it, draw it.

They resist.What's a bud? I can't find one my tree doesn't have buds I can't reach it I have to catch a bus I have to babysit my little brother my tree is dead nothing is happening this is stupid it rained all week my tree is dead it's too small to measure I don't have a ruler....and I push back, a little. 

A small change--a bud gets a little bigger, a little tighter. Kids are inherently curious. They start to watch.

Then it happens--someone's bud blooms, and a child is astounded to see a flower from a tree, astounded enough to share it with the class. Then another child's tree blooms, then another. And they talk.

I'm not going to pretend that all of the children get excited, nor that more than a few continue to fake it (and I continue to pretend I don't know this), collecting a paltry 9 or 10 points each week.

Here's the unexpected part (for me): a few of the children are now writing voluminous reports, wonderfully descriptive logs with multiple drawings, because they want to, reminiscent of the meandering mind of Thoreau when he describes a particular plant:
I observe the peculiar steel bluish purple of the night shade i.e. the tips of the twigs while all beneath is green dotted with bright berries over the water.
This is how kids write when free from the 5 paragraph essay, from the fear of my grade book.

This is how kids write when they take a moment, a long moment, to observe something that interests them. The words matter, and they struggle to find the words, because the observation matters more.

We have a new superintendent here in Bloomfield, Jason Bing, who officially started less than 10 days ago. He's my 4th superintendent in the less than 5 years I've taught here. I expect good things from him, as he does from us, that's what professionals do.

I have a concern, though, and it's not about him, it's about his contract. According to the local news, and it's all I have to go by at the moment, he can earn up to 15% more (over $25,000) "if the district meets five state testing benchmarks set by the BOE."

State testing will not measure, cannot measure, the effects of my Perennial Project. Indeed, the flowery Thoreauesque descriptions interjected with pieces of a child's humanity could hurt a student on the writing portion of our state exams.

The superintendent has been "incentivized"(Arne's word) to push up scores. Scores matter, for some very good reasons, but some things not (yet) measured by the tests matter more.

Much more.

I would love to post some of the students' work here--I'll see if I can get permission.

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