Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lessons from The Trunchbull

My son and I are in the midst of a major Roald Dahl phase.  Dahl is a very dark author and reading his books together has been a blast, and has given the two of us a lot to discuss.  Our most recent foray was in the heart of Matilda.  Matilda is a particularly gifted student in Miss Honey's class.  Miss Honey is very caring, but most of the other adults in Matilda's life are not.  The principal in the school 'The Trunchbull' has some particularly stirring pearls of wisdom.

                 "I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting.  They are the             bane of my life.  They are like insects." she declares while sitting in Matilda's kindergarten class. "My idea of a   perfect school, Miss Honey, is one that has no children in it at all.  One of these days I shall start up a school like that.  I think it will be very successful."

When my six year old read this line he turned to me and said "A school with no children in it would just be a factory."

Now I could turn this blog post in many different directions.  A gushing parent tribute to my incredibly reflective kindergartner, an editorial about the value of children, but instead I want to think about what a school with no children would look like.  Would it indeed be a factory?

In the model of today's schools my son's gut reaction may be correct.  Ken Robinson creates a great image in one of his talks about the child on an assembly line where the only thing that really matters is the date of manufacture.  They are moved through the years like stages of production until they are stamped at the end with a seal of approval in the form of a diploma.  There are periodic 'inspections' from various factory workers and the overall product should look fairly similar to the one produced in the same box.

What if this weren't true.  What if a school with no children was a workshop?  What if the end product wasn't one in a box of nine but rather a unique piece of art like nothing ever seen.

This seems intimidating.  It seems impossible.  It may even seem too idealistic.  And perhaps all of these are true using the framework that we work within.  But what if this framework looked different?

Some of us have the ability to make these changes.  As school leaders we can reshape the way our schools look.  We can restructure our class groupings, subject areas, or even just the way we frame our assignments to our children.  What if you replaced one unit test with an unbounded project?  What would you see?

I don't know, it may be a disappointment and a waste of time but it may be just the thing that you need.  Maybe that kid who never cared about your class would open up and soar.  Perhaps that shy kid who never was able to connect would be able to mentor a neighbor in an area of strength.  You never know what your students may be able to accomplish unless they are given the chance to show you.

One year I had a student who was painfully shy.  It made me uncomfortable to ask her to speak because  the idea of putting two words together in front of her class was pure agony.  As one of the final assignments of the year I hosted an America Idolesque competition in my classroom.  The students all had to present some type of performance showing what they had learned about different types of rocks. We then had a voting process and the winner was chosen to present at a whole school assembly.  Well by now you probably have guessed that the student who won in our class was this same shy girl.  She stood uncomfortably in front of our classroom and quietly read the words to a song she had written.  No one could hear the words, but after her presentation she passed around the lyrics so we could all see them.  They were really fantastic, witty and smart.  Her peers voted that her song was the one that needed to be presented at the assembly but how was she going to do it?  We couldn't even hear her in our small classroom.  They brainstormed what to do.
"Well let's teach her how to sing loudly"
                                       "Picture the audience in their underwear"
"That never works..."
         "Wait, why don't we sing with her"                                 "We can't do that, those aren't the rules"
"Who made up the rules?"
                                             "Let's just change them"
The kids kept going on.  I am sure you can hear the conversation in your own head.  Eventually without any intervention from me, the students decided they all needed to learn the words--the song was too good not to be heard.  One boy offered a guitar, another offered to write out the chords for him.

These were kids I had never seen before.

I knew what they knew in math.  I knew their reading levels could predict their misunderstandings.  I even knew what they liked to do in their free time, but this was a side of them I had never seen.  Giving them an opportunity to just be authentic allowed them to take on new roles they had never taken on in my classroom before.  It may have looked like a waste of time to an outsider, but I knew differently.

They used problem solving, critical thinking, musical prowess, and so many more skills I didn't document.  This was true learning, and I had very little to do with it.  The end result wasn't an amazing performance.  I can't say the whole school stood demanding an encore.  There wouldn't have been any dramatic music in the scene in the movie--but those kids were so proud.

They were all beaming: the writer, director, musical accompanist and their teacher.  Although I didn't give them each an inspection stamp at the end, I could really see the value of their time and the beauty of their art.  The work they did in my class those few days couldn't have been done in a factory, only a workshop filled with chaos and failure, ingenuity and perseverance could have produced such a performance.

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