Yesterday I saw the movie "Whiplash", and it is probably the best film I've seen this year. We'll get to why it was probably right up my alley a little later. The film tells the story of a student's attempt to achieve perfection at a prestigious musical conservatory, and the teacher who sees the potential for greatness within the 19 year old drummer boy. But, this is not the heartwarming tale of the only teacher who would nurture the brilliance out of the student that no one would take a chance on. "Whiplash" is the tale of how a teacher who believes he can push his pupils to greatness through intimidation and fear. The following clip says it all:
I am a teacher but while watching the movie, the lead character of Andrew (played with brutal honesty by Miles Teller) connected with me on a deep level. Many of our students are seeking affirmation from their teachers and will put themselves through the wringer until they get it. That was me as a student. I was the dutiful pupil who would follow instructions unquestioningly. I never gave a second thought to the reasoning why, mine was to do and die. This push was instilled in me at a young age and was amplified by the nature of the classrooms I found myself in. The teacher was never to be questioned. And so it was. I made it through high school just fine and went on to college where I broke away from the path that I seemed to be predestined for by my parents. I pursued my passion and became a teacher. Alright, enough of that diversion.
J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher, the conductor of the nation's greatest conservatory jazz band (in a furious performance destined to win him Oscar gold.) When he sees talent, he does not nurture it and allow it to bloom in its own time. He punishes his students until their brilliance is literally bleeding from their hands. In a quote destined to echo in my head, he says, "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job."
The film led me to the question, "How do we foster the innate talent of students?" Outside of the classroom, we have many extracurricular clubs for those students with specific interests if the are willing to seek them out. In my AP classroom last term, I didn't feel like I could alter my curriculum to meet the interests of specific students. The advanced placement curriculum did not feel like it was designed to allow for this form of individualized instruction until I started picking it apart. Now, it seems like the potential is there to personalize it. There is room to make these adjustments within my curriculum to include more student voice and choice. I would highly recommend all teachers look for the ways that they could do the same.
I hate to sound like a broken record by returning again to project based learning. PBL is a framework that allows students the freedom to meet course objectives through coursework which allows for opportunities to express their interests. Once students find an interest to explore in a physics project, I hope they will begin to see how the curriculum in my class is relevant to their interests and future. I am not attempting to make all of my students physicists. That is not the audience I am even attempting to preach to.
Student voice and choice, I believe, is even more import for those students who are not expressing an interest in school. If we can get them to meet the standards via a personal interest, we have done great work. We spend too much time telling students who are not engaged that they need to be engaged in what we are teaching rather than letting them find their own way into our curriculum. Once we find a student's interest as a teacher, we should be able to nurture this into our curriculum. If we find the correct in, we can hopefully find bridges across curricular areas. This is where the traditional classroom structure fails some of our students. We separate the content areas rather than finding the bridges between them and focusing the objectives around a students specific interest. At a recent conference on personalized learning, I witnessed what a middle school in Muskego, WI is doing with breaking down the curricular walls. They are allowing students to design projects based on learning objectives across content areas. Students choose the objectives and create their own driving question with the help of their teacher. This is a powerful process that truly puts voice and choice in the student's hands.
This type of positive nurturing guidance is what we need in our classrooms. We should not be bending students to the will of the curriculum. We should be bending the curriculum to meet the interests and needs of the student.