Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Something Isn't Working Here: Summer Divergent Thinking Institute

One of my favorite parts -other than the people- of graduate school was the constant engagement in educational research. Sadly, right about the time my research got really interesting (I could nerd-out on neuroscience all day and never get enough), my program was over. I never thought to lament the "loss" of graduate school, but I do. There was something really promising about constantly challenging yourself to implement new strategies into the classroom. And, honestly, I miss that.

As you now know, I'm off to a new school next year. My new school is a Title I school, which means a lot of the students are "economically disadvantaged." I have no idea how disadvantaged or what other hurdles they may face in their day to day lives. But, I have worked in a Title I school previously, so I do have some experiences that I can relate and plan my year around.

I was a second year teacher during my previous Title I experience. I was totally unequipped to handle what I faced. Coming from a private school experience, and with an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts (Painting) and not education, I had no collaborative teaching mentors or student teaching experience on which to draw. I tend to be an "all rainbows and sunshine teacher" which means that my natural inclination is to begin from a place of lesser classroom management and then add more as needed. Essentially, we all know that this plan doesn't really work. And, honestly, that was just one of my many learning curves that year.

What I can say about the experience overall is a quote I read (and love) from missionary Rye Barcott (who also works in Kenya): "Talent is universal; opportunity is not."

The other poignant aspect of my previous experience was how overwhelmingly bored and disenchanted my students were with education. I overcame the boredom issue quickly, because I'm a goofy, funny, engaging teacher. . .But, I never quite resolved the disenchantment issue. When students would complain I would remark: "You want to do well, so you can go to college!" And, they would (quite accurately) response with "Why? You went to college and you don't make any money?!" To my students, the amount of money made was a measure of success. And, when you have students who regularly go hungry (as many of mine did at that time), you really can't argue with that standard.

At the time, I took their response very personally and it offended me. Years later, I have to say, that they were right! I went to college, and even got a master's degree and am damn lucky to have a job -any job- lined up for next year. I've been eking by these past five years making less than my friends without college degrees. A college degree, while helpful, doesn't necessarily engender success or quality pay.

I've been fortunate I suppose to teach students these past four years who -from an early age- have been encouraged to value traditional education, college, and learning. These students have been raised in a manner very similar to my own. And, as such, motivating them, engaging them, and yes, teaching them, has been rather easy in a lot of ways.

But next, year, I expect to have a much wider range of diversity and backgrounds in my students, and I want what I teach them to have value.

So, this summer, I am launching the "Divergent Thinking Learning Institute" here on the blog. Lesson Plan Wednesday and Favorite Artist Fridays will be on halt until August. The purpose of the institute is three-fold:

1. Why is teaching Art and Aesthetics important, why should students value it, and how can we demonstrate this to learners, educators, and administrators?

2. To create lessons and learning experiences that are relevant, interesting, engaging, kinetic, and fun for learners because psychology and neuroscience studies show that such experiences are the key to successful learning.

3. To create classroom management plan(s) that reflect collaborative, communal, and group learning which are based on mutual respect between learners and between learners and educators.

Are you interested in joining the discussion? I would LOVE to have you become a part of this!! I plan on blogging about this all summer here, and if I have enough interested teachers, I will develop a wiki site for us where we can all collaboratively share our insights/ideas/lessons/ and research. I will say that one bonus to this, is that you will leave with a classroom management plan, and lesson plans for the next school year. I will be planning for the middle school learner, and the more educators who participate, the more opportunities for other grade levels we will have.

I hope to see you reading/participating soon!


  1. Definitely intriguing topics for dialogue. I'll be interested to see where it goes.

  2. Oh this is exciting. Let me introduce myself first..my name is Amna and I am an artist/art teacher from Melbourne, Australia. I just finished my teaching round at a secondary college in a low-socio economic suburb. It was challenging/motivating/uplifting/emotional..and so much more. I just finished my exams and an oral report on the social context of that area+school and the effects it had on my class management and lesson plans.
    The question is, how do I share this all with you??

  3. Hello, My name is Max. I am a struggling college at Umass Amherst. It's my first semester here and i dislike it so much. I transferred from Holyoke community college where i had a much better experience in the classroom than i am in the class "halls" on my new campus. There were these classes called learning communities which demonstrated everything you stated in your numbered points...collaboration, communal learning, divergent thinking. I had straight A's for three semesters and i believe it was because i was actually having fun learning and more importantly i was retaining the information! I have been so down lately because i have no platform to let my creativity flow anymore and i realized it was because of the way i am learning now as opposed to the way i was learning at HCC. I would love to build a college designed on the learning techniques of the learning communities that i was taught at HCC. Now let me describe more in detail about the learning communities.

    The class was a combination of two classes, it was environmental philosophy and environmental economics. The point was to bring these two subjects to a common ground by the end of the semester, to meet in the middle because at some point one would complement the other and vice versa. There was about 15-20 students in a class, we would always face each other and we would have a reading assignment due every class and we would all openly discuss it during the class at the beginning after a quiz. The quizzes were short answer questions about important points in the chapters. We were told at the beginning of the semester that no questions are stupid questions and that the teachers would not stand for any disrespect towards other students or the teachers. The tone was set for the class early and all of us were very mature students and took the class seriously and it paid off.

    One of the assignments went like this, for seven days we would have to conserve something or give something up and each day would be designed for something else, like we would have to ride a bike for the whole day as transport instead of taking a car and we would journal about its success or its failures. These types of exercises were supplemental to our learning and our future.

    Im struggling as a student because i don't learn like this anymore and i haven't found an institute which promotes this type of learning. I see that i'm not the only person concerned about it and that makes me hopeful. I've seen Sir Ken robinsons work and i wish to help change the education paradigm. I am a bright student and i never want to stop going to school, well i should say never stop learning, but im sure you understand. Thanks for blogging about this, please try to contact me if you read i would like to stay up on this and pursue any challenges that might be ahead so i can explore this new education paradigm and help implement it. My email is maxduda@ymail.com