A few weeks ago (Oct. 21, to be exact), I made a crack that kid-produced dioramas rarely demonstrate the knowledge of anything except how to keep clay figures stuck in place on a bus ride. I was talking about the too-common assignment of what I called "art projects" instead of book and social studies reports. That elicited a letter (Nov. 11) from a parent complaining that "irritating art projects," when assigned as homework, always seem to become parent projects. This issue is about as hot as any I've talked about, and I thought I'd share some mail on the subject.

Dear Homeroom:

As a sixth-grade teacher at a private school, I am glad to have the opportunity to address the issues raised by "irritating art projects."

At the bottom of it all, it seems more likely that your reader's frustration is not so much with the assignment itself but with the fact that her children have not acquired the organization skills needed to undertake their own projects with minimal parental involvement. So enough blame-shifting already. Teaching children should be a joint effort between parents and professional educators. Together, we need to teach them, among other things, to take responsibility for their own work, teach them to be organized, teach them that there are many ways to express themselves, teach them that they may not be gifted in all areas (art included) but that each deserves their time and attention, and teach them that there is more to life than the next test.

Carole Freret

Bethesda

Dear Homeroom:

Although I also disliked "shoe box" projects, both as a student and as a parent, [they are] . . . an ideal opportunity to teach a life skill that is even more important than whatever will be going inside the shoe box--project planning skills. We all know that determining goals and objectives, defining requirements and coming up with a realistic schedule is essential in any kind of project. So, whether or not the school assignment has this as one of its goals, it is important that the parent use this as an opportunity to teach skills that will be used throughout life.

Judy Rumerman

Silver Spring

Dear Homeroom:

I wish that parents who are upset about their children's overwhelming, "irritating" art projects would take a step back and consider that one of the reasons why teachers assign these sorts of projects is to get kids to learn how to plan. What are they going to make? How complicated is it? What materials will they need, and where will they get them? How much time will it take? A child is better served by a parent who can help him or her make these sorts of decisions last week than by the parent who stacks the sugar cubes himself the night before.

Calli Schmidt

Derwood

I have to confess a little ambivalence here. Planning and organization are wonderful skills, and ones that I personally struggle over, well into adulthood. I am sometimes convinced that if I had just learned how to organize my loose-leaf binder properly in elementary and middle school--the way my children are learning--I would be a more successful person today. So I'm not opposed to teaching children how to plan and organize.

But the point of planning and organizing is that they enable you to learn and do something important, not just how to plan and organize.

We started with dioramas, so let's keep using them as an example. Say a child made a diorama of the way troops were positioned in the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill. If he or she simply copied from a book, all the child would have learned is how to observe and copy and how to organize his or her time and materials to make a diorama. To me that is more or less a waste of time.

If, however, by making the diorama, the child gained and demonstrated an understanding about the effect of terrain, the disposition of troops and the importance of what military people call "taking the high ground," that would have been a fabulous use of time. In that way, the child would have used project planning skills as a way to learn about some of the reasons battles, and thus wars, are won and lost--certainly a large issue in human history.

Unfortunately, however, too often dioramas and other art projects assigned to students do not stimulate or demonstrate any kind of deep knowledge along those lines. They are often assigned instead of written book reports and are used almost exclusively as a way to reinforce those same old organization and planning skills.

The educational theory behind this--yes, there is a theory--is that process skills such as planning and organizing (and another favorite of educators, "critical thinking") are independent of any specific learning and that if children can organize a diorama project, they will then be able to organize other aspects of their life, both in and out of school.

But I have never seen any convincing research that learning how to plan, organize and think critically can be achieved without some meaningful content to plan, organize and think about. On the contrary, there is a fair amount of research indicating two things--learning about something meaningful actually changes the brain's structure so that the capacity to learn other meaningful things is enhanced; and learning to plan and think about one thing doesn't necessarily transfer into the ability to plan and think about a different kind of thing.

If we want our kids to learn how to plan and organize, we need to connect those processes to something much more meaningful than just how to plan and organize.

I don't know if the following letters prove or disprove my point, but they come from a class of sixth-graders whose reading teacher read them my original diorama column after they had completed a diorama to illustrate a book. I edited the letters for length but not content and grammar, and I withheld their names because, frankly, tracking down their parents for permission was a bit more than I could organize (I told you I had trouble along those lines).

Dear Homeroom:

I think dioramas are more important than just trying to keep clay figures together on a bus ride because it is not just about clay figures. It is about the whole scene including trees and other items. Its also telling you a moment in the story. It is also important to hand it in and get credit. If we didn't hand it in we would get a bad grade.

Dear Homeroom:

I think that you need knowledge to do dioramas. I think this because you need to know what you are going to build, the type of stuff you need to use like what color paper and what kind of paper to use, you also need knowledge to make it out of a shoebox or just a box. So that is why you need knowledge.

Dear Homeroom:

I am very outraged by the article you wrote about kid-produced dioramas! You do not have any right to write that article! Have you ever made a diorama for a book or anything at all when you were a kid at all? If you did you should now that dioramas need hard work, the fact that you read the book, that you understand the book (problem, setting, etc.), and also need a lot of concentration. In dioramas you learn setting, which is a very important element in a book or writing piece. I request that you come to my class to see my classmates' clay figures standing up. I also suggest that you print this letter in your next Homeroom article so other readers understand your mistake.

Dear Homeroom:

I am going to give you one good reason why dioramas are good. For example let's say the teacher wants to check your comprehending on the setting, a diorama would be good. Now next time you write something make sure you check with a child's opinion.

Dear Homeroom:

I agree that art projects are not the best way to learn. They don't teach us anything. Art projects only show a scene from the book. An essay shows that the class understands the book. Since the new superintendent wants higher test scores, students have to write more in order to get better.

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