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Posted at 10:02 AM ET, 07/09/2012

The Common Bore

This was written by Arnold Dodge, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University/C.W. Post Campus and a former New York state teacher, principal and superintendent.

By Arnold Dodge

Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted . . . — E.M. Forster

I would argue that the three words to best describe an effective classroom are engagement, engagement, engagement. Those who make policy would disagree, it seems, since policy promulgated at the national and state level has less to do with engagement and more to do with obedience. My experiences as a public school teacher and administrator were in sharp contrast to the standard-focused juggernaut that now passes for educational leadership.

As an English teacher I knew that making connections to the lived experiences of my students — engaging them fully — was my most important assignment. I enlisted the support of some notable role models, shepherding my ninth graders through the narratives crafted by the likes of Lorraine Hansberry and William Shakespeare. My very best days as a teacher were when I could reach into the lives of my students, aided by the power of literature, to help them make the connection and find meaning for themselves.

Like the time we were reading a scene from “A Raisin in the Sun” — a moment in time that stays with me some 40 years later — and the only black boy in class engaged in a discussion of how it feels to be one of kind; and how his classmates opened up soon after about issues of race and difference.

Or the many times my teenage students gushed over Juliet’s coquettish behaviors as Romeo used his flowery flirtations to woo her. The room dripped with budding romance thanks to, in part, my ability to engage my students in the language of the bard. I’m pretty certain my students at the very least, were not bored during these times. For many, I’m sure there was a bit of magic in the air — literature come alive and made personal.

Alas, today I would have to be concerned about the plot summary and main ideas presented in “A Raisin in the Sun” and make sure that my students parsed the meter and rhyme elements of the balcony seen in “Romeo and Juliet.” After all, these factoids might be on the “test.” Not that I ignored the deconstruction of the text, but it certainly wasn’t the driving force behind my teaching. I knew that to engage my hormonally driven, easily distracted and always energetic students, I had to keep engagement (providing relevance, context and an emphasis on personal meaning making) uppermost in the register of my pedagogical tools.

There is hard evidence to support the importance of the engagement proposition. One need only look at the results of a recent High School Survey of Student Engagement* (over 42,000 students participating).

The director of the program comments on the importance of connecting students to their work: “But there’s got to be some way to connect this content and this material to where the students are and what their interests are. We are seeing from some of the open responses that they will take on challenges even in a content area where they’re not good if it’s being communicated and connected to them well.”

And from the report’s conclusion regarding the purpose of schooling: “If the purpose is to create a way of learning and acquiring knowledge, to dig into an area of interest and inquiry, and to take an intellectual or practical passion to the next level of schooling and/or work, then engaging students in the life and work of schools will be of paramount importance.”

I can’t help wondering why those in power don’t get it. Did they have such brutal classroom experiences that they need to foist the same on the youngsters today? A revenge of sorts? An initiation rite? “Well, I had to put up with boring stuff, so you’ll just have to as well?” Don’t some of them, at least, remember being inspired by teachers who made the classroom meaningful for them, who understood that the most direct way to a child’s brain is through his heart and soul?

During my life as an administrator — a principal, curriculum administrator and superintendent — I was guided in my decisions by writers and scholars — Dewey, Vygotsky, Hunter, Kozol, Kohl, Palmer — who saw the life of the learner as central to the work of the teacher. This centrality was rooted in finding meaning, making the work personal, associating the text to self. These giants, on whose shoulders many of us stand, knew that classrooms are organic places where spontaneity, unpredictability, risky and deeply personal experiences are treasures beyond any standard measure. With the emphasis on impersonal analysis in many of today’s educational initiatives, I am afraid the magic would be gone, the interactions dry, lifeless and irrelevant.

Two disturbing policy trends have emerged which emphasize impersonal analysis at the expense, I believe, of relevance and meaning for the learner:

The ubiquitous use of standardized testing has become the sine qua non of teacher evaluations. By insisting that teachers improve their students’ test scores or risk termination, the message is clear. Teachers must reduce the personal, the meaningful, the long arduous and messy journey to understanding, and get to the point if they want to keep their jobs. Never mind that the kids are bored. You’ve got a test to prepare for. Never mind that you’ve heard about your work affecting eternity. You’ve got the state tests next month.

And now comes the Common Core State Standards. From the gushing and congratulations all around, you’d think we’ve finally found the magic bullet. The Common Core standards promise to remake education in the United States. This message is on the tip of every commissioner’s tongue and somewhere up front in every governor’s speech on education policy.

I fear that this Trojan gift, all decked out in promises of coherence, unity and alignment, will be yet another nail in the engagement coffin. (Remember that regardless of how common the curriculum is, the standard of success will still be test results.) Most troubling is a seeming disregard for personal meaning making in the Common Core initiative. David Coleman, the chief architect of the Common Core, has this to say about the child’s perspective in learning: “As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh-- about what you feel or what you think.” He really said that. You could look it up.**

Teaching my students that the world does care about what they feel and think — and that’s why they need to show up ready to change and innovate, move and shake up that world — is what got me to work each day with passion and purpose.

If the prevailing educational paradigms, whether they be testing regimes or standards, are going to be based on what a tactician’s (or a politician’s or a psychometrician’s) sense of what learning is all about, then where will the passion come from for educators and their students?

An instrumental approach to education policy — rather than an emancipatory one — leads to little change, loads of rules and a begrudging compliance. Educators know the importance of engagement in their classrooms and realize that attempts to standardize the teaching and learning process which stanch joy, spontaneity and creativity will yield short term results and long term resentments.

Boring.

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*See Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement

** David Coleman at NY State Department of Education presentation, April 2011

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