I read a book last year that impacted my thinking a great deal. The book was An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger. Berger writes of three "toolboxes" for bringing out the best in students: a school culture of excellence, work of excellence and teaching of excellence.
One story he told that really stuck in my mind was the story of when he took some of his students to speak about their work to some teachers at another school. It was a school for the deaf, and Berger's students addressed the teachers using sign language; they had learned it as part of a unit of study on deaf culture (this, in itself, impressed me). One of the teachers asked the students about doing so many drafts and putting in so much effort on each project. "Don't you complain about having to work so hard and do so many drafts to complete your work?"
The students, having always been at a school where excellence is the norm, where work is important and meaningful, did not really understand the question. Why complain about the way things are?
It would be like asking students at another type of school, "Why don't you complain about doing so many worksheets? Don't you want to have an authentic audience, to do meaningful, high quality work?" These students probably would be as baffled by this type of question as those girls were baffled by the question of why they put in so much work and effort on their projects.
I've grappled, as a teacher, with what I call the "'I'm done' culture." Ignoring the grammatical problems with the phrase "I'm done," I find that my students generally view projects and assignments as something to finish. Why? What is the reward for being "done?"
Is it a question of authentic audience? Non-engagement in a task? A school culture that more or less trains students to view school as a place to finish one thing (no matter how crummy the job) and move on to the next? Where is the internal motivation to care, to work through drafts and make changes? I believe that this is one of the most important roles I can embrace as a teacher- to try to bring students to a place where the work they do matters to them, where they strive for quality over quantity.
I highly recommend reading Berger's book as a helpful guide. It can be boiled down to four key points:
•Give students work that matters
•Share examples of excellence
I feel that I do a halfway decent job of 3 out of 4 of these. Although I have tried, I have not gotten the hang of having student critiques of any real value. I do believe strongly in public presentation of work, be that a presentation to classmates, parents, other classes in the school, contests, partnership or a worldwide audience through web 2.0. I have seen this impact students' desire to do a better job on the next project more than any grade or feedback from the teacher.
My questions are-
*Can this type of student work ethic be achieved in a single classroom when the general school culture is of a different ethic?
*How can a school move, as a whole, toward an ethic or culture of high standards, meaningful work and true integration as opposed to more isolated, non-authentic assignments?
Pushing students only works so much. There has to be some internal desire to put in the work necessary to create something of which a student can be genuinely proud.
I have an anecdote to share, a tale of a struggle I am currently having over this very topic. I am going to save it for my next blog post.