Thursday, April 18, 2013

Full of Happiness

The school was abuzz with activity.  “What’s going on in the hall,” a student asked the principal as he walked toward his office.  “A senior project that you should be lucky to attend later today,” he replied.  "Cool,"said the student.  And I couldn't agree more.

I visited this NYC school yesterday to see "A Celebration of Language, Culture, and Community" that was inspired by the students' reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Two weeks ago their teacher had challenged them with a task: to design, construct, and run a pop-up store that would sell intangible goods.  Their ultimate goal was to celebrate their own language, culture, and community as Hurston does in the novel.  The teacher's goal was to have them explore themes in the book, apply their knowledge of design and construction (the focus of their school), and practice public speaking and other professional skills.  As I walked into the building and was greeted with a handshake from two students, who explained the physical path, as well as the overall project, I knew her goals had been achieved.  I was not disappointed by the rest of my visit.

Three groups of seniors were selling non-tangible items in their stores, which had been elaborately constructed out of cardboard.  One group sold answers to questions in celebration of their individual cultures.  I had been given $10 in play money at the door.  I paid $2 to find out if the young man representing “street culture” liked to read.  (He didn’t.)   I followed the path around the corner, where another young man greeted me with a smile and invited me to his store.  One of his classmates swooped by me and stamped my hand with a smiley face.

For $1 I bought two compliments at this store.

Farther down the hall a group sold words, “vernacular” and “formal.”  After being welcomed by two students who explained the difference between these forms of language - one of them acting out an "interview" in vernacular language for effect - I bought the words “slippin,” “hold it down,” “jackin,” and “YOLO.”  I felt a little more street-wise after the fact.

As I prepared to leave the building, the bell rang for third period, and the teacher in charge coached her students about the next round of visitors.  Other students loitered in the hallway well past the bell, curious about the event and hopeful that their own teachers would bring their classes later in the day.

I share this story because it shows the best of education.  It shows students engaged - even non-readers like the "street culture" boy from store 1.  It shows that kids can create.  They can think.  They can achieve.  I left their celebration full of happiness.

I haven't been happy much about the state of education lately.  But stories like this one give me hope.  Then today two more stories appeared back-to-back on my newsfeed.  The first, Is Organic Better?  Ask a Fruit Fly, discussed a science experiment that was begun by a middle school student who wanted to solve an argument between her parents, who had been discussing the merits of organic food.  Three years later this student (now 16) has been published in a scientific journal.  Inquiry drove her.  She achieved.  She added knowledge to the world.

What if school were like this?

Unfortunately, it's not always, as is evident in the second story that appeared on my feed today.  However, the article Eighth Grader Designs Standardized Test That Slams Standardized Tests again shows what kids can do.  This 13-year-old, tired of the culture of testing, designed an eighth grade reading test that pokes fun at standardized testing.  It's brilliant.  After seeing her work I want to advocate for making "test writing satire" a required genre in schools.  I'm pretty sure students would get more out of it than prepping for THE TEST and taking it.

In less than 24 hours I have seen first-hand and in print the amazing things kids can do - when we let them.  And it makes me full of happiness.

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