It was Saturday afternoon, nearly the end of our April vacation, and I hear my son in the other room becoming increasingly frustrated. Our cheap paper cutter isn’t cutting evenly and he has a project due shortly after his return to school.
This post could easily be about the fact that my son was given a group project over vacation that required us to bring a laptop, printer, craft paper, paper cutter, glue sticks, colored pencils and group diplomacy with us to Cape Cod, but it isn’t. I’ll save that for next time.
My issue is with the purpose and priorities of the projects my children have completed as they made their way through middle school. My issue is with the emphasis put on artwork and the exact nature of how artwork is to be included in projects.
My son has struggled with fine motor difficulties his entire life. He would never qualify, at least in our school district, for Occupational Therapy services, but handwriting, precision cutting, and drawing are a real challenge for him to do neatly. I give him great credit for finding activities that challenge him, such as complex Lego™ constructions, and persevering with them so that his strength and dexterity has improved somewhat. Any and all attempts to get him to use a pencil grip reduced us both to tears, and I am thankful that he has learned to type well for his age.
My contention, whenever discussing projects with him, is that the teacher really wants to know what he has learned about a subject and that the visuals, while helpful in conveying this, are secondary to his showing what he knows about the subject and can come from a variety of sources. I tell him I’m a teacher and I know what teachers want. This is when he shoves the ubiquitous rubric and accompanying checklist at me and storms off, telling me that I don’t know anything.
He’s right. Apparently, I don’t know a thing. So many points are assigned to the creation of beautiful illustrations, complex constructions (the infamous Secret Room Book Report) and artful presentations that the child with limited artistic skills (or budget) cannot possibly earn a good grade. One project prohibited pictures taken from the internet, magazines, or even personal photographs. Each and every “illustration” had to actually be illustrated by the student in marker or colored pencil.
So, I ask, when is the last time an adult had to pull out colored pencils in order to add visuals to their presentation? If we are teaching children real world skills, wouldn’t the time be better spent teaching them about Creative Commons, citation format, licenses, and how to pick a photo that really evokes the theme of their presentation?
What about making our pictures move? What about video or animation? What about presentation formats that allow the inclusion of voice and music?
I believe that visuals are an important and powerful element to delivering a message, especially in this day of digital media. Why not harness all of the tools at our disposal in bringing a message to life? Why couldn’t this project have been completed using a program like Glogster to bring maps, portraits, and text together as a unified whole? Or a multimedia presentation using video and audio in a slideshow, movie or other format?
It pains me to think of the learning opportunities lost as my son struggled to recreate a portrait of Anne Frank with Crayola™ markers last year. Did his frustrating attempt really help his teacher know what he had learned of Anne and the Holocaust? Should he really have spent more time and energy on this portrait than on the rest of his presentation combined?
What is it we want our students to learn? What is it we want them to be able to do? And why are we putting obstacles in the way of their learning and doing?
As for my feelings about a group project assigned over school vacation, stay tuned, I have a few things to say about that, as well.