Month: February 2016

America’s Broken Education System

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America’s education system is broken. Or at least that’s what everyone says. It’s not competitive enough, our test scores aren’t high enough, there aren’t enough resources, or teachers, or extra-curricular activities, we need more art and music, more physical education, more recess, better math scores, IB and AP classes, more teachers, smaller classrooms, more student-lead instruction, more everything. No one can seem to decide what we should do with our “broken” system. Can’t we just leave education alone? The more we try to fix the problem the worse it gets. Every budget band-aid, every testing protocol, and every little thing we do to try to prop-up and patch-together our failing system only adds to the problem. Like a teengage girl trying to cover up a particularly nasty pimple, the layers of concealer, foundation, and powder at first seem to be doing the trick. But the more you layer on, the more you blend, and the longer you wait the less convincing your work is. It cakes, dries out, and cracks revealing the problem underneath and leaving you looking worse than if you had just let you skin function naturally.

Although sort of gross, i think that this analogy is actually a pretty accurate one. The more we poke and prod, the more tests we administer, and the more ever-changing benchmarks that we must hit as both students and teachers, the button.jpgmore complicated and convoluted we make our school system. Of course our schools need structure and this structure will need to evolve and change as technology and society keep moving forward. However, i think that we need to focus less on comparisons and more on the individual. We compare our nation to other nations, our districts, school, classes, teachers, and even individual students. There is no space in school that is not already filled with competitive tension and apprehension. This is due less to bad teachers, and hard assignments than it is to the ever-present fear of not succeeding. There is tremendous and often insurmountable pressure placed on children from the moment they place their little feet in preschool. Students are expected to read younger, use complex thought processes, and do more complex math. This “race to the top” (see what i did there?) takes away the focus from education and learning and moves it to getting that 4.5 GPA (a technically impossible feat although it’s becoming more and more common place everyday) and creating the perfect resume. Is this what we really want education (and by extension our lives) to be about? Being better than others? Becoming untouchabley talented so that no one can even hope to come close to our achievements?

I hate that mentality. And i don’t use the word hate lightly. Is our goal as people and as a society to have individual success or collaborative success? There’s a disgusting attitude towards group-work, collaboration, and teamwork in schools and in society. We all participate in group-work, but when was the last time you heard somebody excited to start a group-project in school? Everyone hates group-work and collaboration, it’s a fact of life, but why? Why is collaboration seen as a bad thing in our society? In society’s eyes the only form of true success is individual success. Your success is due to YOUR work, YOUR time, YOUR energy, YOUR self-starting attitude. If you do a quick google image search for 2016-01-03-1451856686-656245-Successsuccess almost every image depicts one person, a solitary victory. These images speak volumes about the way our society values collaboration and teamwork. It shouldn’t take away from your successes to admit that you had help or that you collaborated with others. Collaboration is one of our best attributes as a species. Collaboration is what got humans and our society where it is today: global and human efforts to raise the standard of living, to increase technological availability, to create innovative new products and ideas. Without collaboration our society and world would be a pale imitation of what we have accomplished together. Why can we not see that it is our ability to collaborate that makes us so successful? New perspectives, ideas, and ways of working can only come from outside sources. You cannot and should not have to take on the world alone.

Do i have an answer for how to reform or restructure our school system so that it is the “best”? No. But i honestly don’t think that anybody does. Even Finland doesn’t have a perfect education system. I can tell you what i know is necessary and vital to learn in order to be a capable, successful, happy adult. images (2)You need to learn social skills: learning how to communicate with others respectfully, and how to disagree respectfully. You need to learn how to be creative and imagine: without art, music, and physical activity life is boring and monotonous. You need to learn how to express yourself: either through written or spoken word, communication and self-expression are valuable tools for creating strong personal and business relationships as well as getting to know yourself and becoming happy with who you are. You need to learn how to critically think and analyze and synthesize information: being able to think for yourself is what makes each of us so unique and influential in our own right, 763762b3f5b3c6b52d9174e001449109if you can think critically you can make decisions for yourself and participate actively and thoughtfully in everything from day-day decisions to national elections. Finally you need to learn how to collaborate and work with others. I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again, collaboration is one of the tools that makes us so successful as individuals and as a species. Without collaboration we are nothing, and our bad attitude towards asking for help and advice is detrimental to our happiness and success.

So how do we “fix” education? How do we reform and restyle our schools so that our students are passing tests with flying colors and ranking high nationally and internationally? We don’t. You don’t “fix” education, there is no perfect style of school or classroom that will work for each of the millions of students in the United States. What we need to focus on is creating students and individuals who can think and work for themselves, who aren’t afraid to ask for help and can use the resources available to them to succeed in their goals. Creating blanket systems for testing and learning is counterproductive and does nothing but add stress to the already complicated lives of teachers and students.

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As far as i’m concerned the federal government should be providing one thing for our nation’s schools: funding. I do not know enough about the economics of education to tell you how that money should be distributed, but I do know that schools and classrooms are highly individualized even within the same city. It is ridiculous and presumptuous of ourselves to assume that what works for students in New York will work for students in Florida or California. The lifestyle and demands of the average American shift dramatically when moving through the nation. In order to provide that funding the government would probably have to administer some sort of national test in order to create benchmarks and averages, but one test a year is more than enough. The test would measure core skills sets such as critical thinking and communication. Apart from this single test, how a school chooses to test or teach it’s students should be up to that school and its staff. On a national level, school would teach skills like critical thinking, social interaction, communication, and creativity. At an individual level, schools would teach English, Math, Carpentry, Mechanics, History, etc. Elementary school would provide students with core content knowledge like basic history, math, English, political, science, and technology knowledge. When it comes to secondary education students should be allowed to make a choice. Most students never return to the content-specific knowledge they acquired in middle and high school unless it is something they are particularly passionate about, but they do continue to use their critical thinking and social skills every day of their lives no matter what profession or lifestyle they choose.This approach would create a diverse system of schools that cater to a variety of need and styles of learning. Students and parents could choose the school that best matches their child’s interests, learning style, and capabilities. This system would dramatically change how we view education, students, and the definition of student success. Instead of testing day in and day out and completing courses that have no relevance to their lives, students (and their parents) should be allowed to decide what sort of content and specific skill sets they would like to learn.

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Education is a complicated process. Those who have never set foot in an education class or taught so much as a pottery class should have no say in what education and learning could and should be in our nation. How can someone with no practical experience as an educator and no recent experience as a student possibly understand the detriments that arise from our current system? The only reason education is the way it is today is because we as a nation and as individuals have decided that this is the “right” way to educate, and that this particular style will lead to “success” in our modern world. If you want to live in a world that values collaboration, critical thinking, and considers more than your GPA it is up to you as citizens and students to choose not to play the game of education. I refuse to let myself be defined and categorized by people who know nothing of me other than a late assignment, a single five paragraph essay, or my score on the SAT. I will not let my successes become diminished simply because i asked for help or collaborated with a classmate or friend. If you feel like school was a waste of your time, if you feel useless and stupid because you failed one test (or like some of my friends, because they got a B instead of an A), if you don’t want to trudge through a 9-5 life just so you can wave your business card in someone’s face, if you want more from life than our nations unrealistic, individualistic, and detrimental definition of success, then stop playing the game. You do not have to accept the system we are currently in. Vote for and make change. Decide to live your life for more than your grades and future profession. If it were up to me we would live in world and nation where education is about more than factual knowledge and success is defined by more than our salary and position.

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Unfortunately it’s not up to me, it’s up to us.

A Photo-Essay By Any Other Name…

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Do a quick search on google about photo essays and one thing will become annoyingly clear; photo-essay is a relative term. Call it a photo-story, photojournalism, photo-essay, photo-series, or what have you, there is no generalized format to work with other than “take images and put them in an order”. Though there are many examples of photo essays and pages of advice from photographers both amateur and professional, it is stupid hard to find someone with anything definitive to say on the topic. It’s not that the advice isn’t helpful, or that they haven’t given me any good ideas for my photo essay, it’s just filled with cliche phrases like: “make your topic something in which you find interest” (that’s a direct quote by the way). One photographer summed up the problem with photo essays very succinctly: “In short, it can be almost anything you want it to be. Which is where I struggle most–when the options are limitless.” A photo essay can literally be about anything you want it to be. If you were to strip it down to its bare bones a photo essay would only have two requirements: 1. a purpose 2. photos. The rest is entirely up to you. The images can have captions or quotes beneath, they can have essays describing them or nothing at all. There can be two images or five hundred. When it comes to creating a photo essay your options are limitless, and there’s nothing worse than a blank slate.

Nothing cures a bad case of writers (or photographers?) block like a good dose of inspiration. Although there are thousands of photo essays by students and photographers, from middle school students to professional photographers, documenting exactly what you would expect photo essays to document: environmental and social causes, urban decay and reclamation, photos that show the “real” you, etc. these are hardly inspirational. It can be hard to find photo essays that really succeed in presenting information in a unique and revealing way. When well done and created with passions these “generic” essays can still be very intriguing and stimulating but i want to create something that speaks in a voice that only i can create, that can’t be found a thousand other times in the depths of google. I want to create the type of photo essay that inspires others to think about and explore my topic and ideas. In order to do this i needed to find inspiration that was worthy of my lofty goals. And i totally found it.

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The first photo essay i will share with you not only exposes a unique subset of Moroccan culture, but entrances me with its vibrant colors, mysterious subjects, and commanding image. Kesh Angels is a photo-essay by Hassan Hajjaj, exploring the perceptions of Arabic and Western culture in juxtaposition. I think that this photo essay is both beautiful and poignant. I love the ideas that it plays with and how it presents them. I think that the essay is thought-provoking and intriguing. I want to know more about the girls and their culture, i even want to share in and participate in that culture. I think that if Hajjaj had used captions in a more purposeful manner that the photo essay could be even more powerful. Although the image should speak for itself i like the idea of captions adding more to the conversation and asking questions of the image and the reader.

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The next photo essay that i absolutely loved was a piece capturing snipers in their nests. I could not find a title for the photo essay, but it was photographed by Simon Menner. I like this essay because it is just as intriguing as the Kesh Angel essay, but in an entirely different way. Instead of popping with color and pushing the subject to the forefront, the reader has to explore and probe the image for the subject. It becomes a sort of game, and you start to have fun playing “find the sniper” until you remember that these men are not hiding for fun and the implication of these images hits you. I think that this essays opens up a discussion  involving warfare, tactics, and morality. I also think that the essay is intriguing on a simple factual level. It is interesting to see how and where a snipe camouflages himself, and it’s scary how often you’re wrong about where he’s hiding. I think that it’s worth noting that photo essays could be really great tools for relaying information in a way that makes the reader curious and willing to explore. Like some sort of photo-essay scavenger hunt, you could send readers hunting for more information, images, or related content in order to understand the full story behind the images.

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Humanae is such a gorgeous and unique idea that i just had to include it in my list of photo essays. The project is simple and innocuous enough. Photograph a person and match their skin tone to the appropriate Pantone hue. Over the years the photographer has created a vast database of images. Hundreds of people, catalogued, color-coded, and placed on her Tumblr. Viewed on their own the images have marginal impact, but when viewed all together you can see the huge amount of variation and detail in the color of our skin tones. And this is what Angelica Dass is really getting at with her project. It is a commentary on how we define skin color and how we catalogue and segregate ourselves. What your tax forms or college applications would say is “White” is actually a range of pink, to alabaster, to orange. I think that this photo essay is astounding for it’s brilliant combination of simplicity and complexity. The photos are straight-forward and the purpose is easy to understand. When looking at the image the eye is immediately drawn to the subject and then to the background, color matched to a well-lit pixel of cheek skin. The  complexity comes from what the reader chooses to bring to the project. Easily dismissed as a quirky gimmick, this essay speaks to structure and function of society at a fundamental level. It approaches the topic in such an unexpected manner that the reader has a hard time bring prejudices and pre-conceived notions along for the ride.

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Although i’m sure that i could find more photo-essays that i would love to share (and i have (pt. II, pt. III, pt. IV), i’d rather take a moment to discuss what all this marvelous inspiration means for me, myself, and my essay. I know that i want my images to be impactful, to punch the reader in the face with either pure awesomeness, or intense curiosity. I want my images to be collective, to have a contiguous theme, and to share visual elements to tie them together. I know that i want to make my captions work for me. Most essays seem to simply write a sentence or two of description beneath the image, and i feel like captions can and should do more for the photographer/author and reader. I also know that i want to do more than recreate another cliche. Although i still haven’t decided what my UGP will really be about (beyond the vague statement of my touchstone beliefs on education), i know that i don’t want it to be re-creatable. I want it to be a unique vision and essay that only i could imagine and make manifest.

I’m still excited to see where this goes,

Bonus Content: if you want to see the most ridiculous and amazing photo-essay ever click HERE

 

 

Communication and Genre

I think communication is an underused tool in our culture. I’m guilty of it, we all are. It’s tough and scary to tell the truth when it hurts, to be rational in anger, objective in pain and sadness. When we communicate we remove these obstacles. A lack of communication often represents a fear of rejection. When asked to bare our souls we back away, give excuses, or straight up lie. These are defense mechanisms, designed to protect ourselves, to keep us in our safe zone, tucked quietly away behind walls of silence and calculating paranoia. Your fear keeps you safe, or so you think.

download.jpegA lack of communication means a lack of collaboration, helping hands, resources, and connections to help you right wrongs, achieve goals, and create strong relationships. No one can read your mind but you, and if you choose to lock the content away from others and yourself you will have a very hard time finding and doing what makes you happy and healthy.

When we communicate, even through fear, we allow others to see our ideas, thoughts, and emotions for what they truly are. And in turn, we help and allow other to react to our actions and words in a more truthful and helpful manner. When we learn how to communicate we learn how to express ourselves and how to connect to the world and the people around us. We are constantly bombarded with opportunities to communicate through written word, image, video, audio, action, and body language everyday. When you learn a new genre of communication you unlock a new way to help others understand and help you achieve you goals and desires. This is the beauty of communication. It doesn’t have to be done one way. You can communicate through a variety of almost infinite genres including: texting, stories, essays, songs, poetry, images, performances, sculptures, articles, speeches, talking to another person, blogging, vlogging, instructions, reports, letters, comics, advertisements, analysis, reviews, critiques, story, anecdote, script, scrapbook, resume, manuals, etc. Learning new genres will help you understand how to communicate in a more effective and helpful manner.

As a teacher i especially understand the importance of learning how to communicate through written and spoken word. Many students graduate understanding how to craft an excellent five paragraph essay, but unable to create a poem, story, personal essay. These forms of writing are excellent for communicating emotion, desire, and ideas about the self, other, nature, culture, and the world at large. When we teach students to not just how to write, but how to write in multiple genres we teach them to explore the writing and thinking process. Metacognition is extremely valuable and educational in helping one to understand how to grow, learn, and try new things.

As a teacher i encourage myself and other to learn about and how to use as many genres as possible. Each genre is best suited for a certain moment, style of communication, and action or idea undertaken by the speaker/author. To this end i am undertaking the unfamiliar genre project as a part of my class on writing about education.tumblr_inline_mkuhpipX3l1qz4rgp.png

The unfamiliar genre project in an exercise and exploration in genre, writing style, and how to write. Students are asked to choose a genre of writing they are unfamiliar with and research, create an example of, and reflect upon that genre. I will be completing the UGP in the coming months and am excited to explore and try out new ways of communicating.

For my UGP I have chosen to explore photo-essays. I think that images are very powerful but I have never taken the time to learn how to create an image that says something and that has a story or deeper meaning behind it. I also chose the photo-essay because I get to include captions. I have decided to not limit myself when it comes to my captions content and style. The captions might be poems, words, phrases, mini-essays, stories, or anecdotes, whatever i feel best capture and complements the ideas behind my images and the purpose behind my photo-essay.

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I have not yet decided on a length for the project, I do not know if it will be time or image based. I think I will need to do more research into my genre and explore photography a little more to see how much i can/should express in one image, and how many images i will need to fully express the concept.

I am really excited to see where this project goes. Even though i haven’t started yet I am already excited to see my finished product and reflect on the experience.

This is my UGP proposal:

Which genre would you like to read and write in for your Unfamiliar Genre Project?

I would like to create a photo-essay with captions. I would like to play with the concept of self as a private and public experience through the use of self-portraiture and image combined with a written summation in a multi-genre form. Depending on the needs of the image the caption could be a poem, story, anecdote, phrase, single word, essay, question, or other form of writing.

What experiences, if any, do you have with reading and writing in this genre?

I have almost no experience in photography. I’ve taken photos with my phone of myself and friends, things i do, and whatnot, but they’re “facebook” photos. I wasn’t trying to say anything with them and they had no real purpose. I of course have experience in writing. I have written a few short stories, poems, and essays in my time, but i think the real challenge will be determining which genre would best fit each picture and then how to express the ideas and questions i hope to include in the photo-essay in written and image form.

What do you already know about this genre?

I did a quick bit of googling about the genre. I looked up some concepts for photo-essays and photoshoots. I also looked a bit at the purpose of a photo-essay and why a photographer would choose to do one. I know that the genre is pretty open to interpretation. The main point to to try to say something, anything, with your images and captions. Have a consistent theme or idea that pervades every photo.

Why are you choosing this genre?

I really wanted to do something image based to challenge myself, I think i’m pretty good at communicating with words so I wanted to play with another form of communication. That being said i also really enjoy writing and wanted to continue to stretch and push my writing skills. The caption portion will allow me to explore genres of writing that i am both comfortable and uncomfortable with. I think it will be really interesting to see what genres of writing i choose for which image. Whether i have consistent choices or switch it up every image, and how long i choose to make each caption will play a huge role in how the images are interpreted by the audience.

What would you like to learn by studying this genre and completing this project?

I would like to learn how to create an image that says something. I would also like to learn how to caption and express ideas in a complementary way instead of a holistic manner. I think it will be really interesting to explore how images and writing go together.

Not Yet…

I recently watched Carol Dwek’s Ted Talk on the power of “not yet…” Dwek introduces the idea of a growth mindset and explains how it can be useful for students. I would go one step further, a growth mindset is key to picking up new hobbies, skills, and strategies no matter your age, capabilities, or “inherent talent” that one has.

As we go through our lives, going to work, school, encountering problems that need to be solved, we often run up against walls. “I don’t know how”, “I can’t”, and “I won’t do it well” are often thrown out, excuses against having to challenge oneself and continuing to grow and learn. As learners, many of us have a fixed mindset. Either you know it or you don’t. This mindset says that there are those born with talent, great painters, athletes, and writers come out of the womb with talent overflowing from their fingertips, they are not made. Many people don’t sincerely believe that if we practice, try hard, and keep working at it, that we will eventually get better and learn how to succeed in that area.

By teaching a growth mindset, we give students, workers, and every citizen the power to say, “not yet” instead of “i can’t”. Not yet implies that if you keep trying and practicing, that you will improve and eventually succeed. Not yet encourages those who fall to get back on their feet and try again, because even though they many not have it now, not yet, they will soon.

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As a teacher i recognize the importance of not yet as a tool for struggling, disheartened, and disillusioned students. By telling students “not yet” they are given permission to fail, try again, and keep failing until they succeed. Not yet also helps overachievers, those who fly though school with ease, who have never come across a challenge powerful enough to stop them in their tracks. Not yet teaches these students that they can also grow and learn. Even though they are at the top of the class, they too can continue to learn, grow, and become better than they already are.

Students who are taught a growth mindset can translate that mindset into the rest of their lives. If they want to pick up a new skill, hobby, or try a new career all they have to tell themselves is “not yet” and they know that through hard work, trial and error, and practice, that they will be able to succeed and do what they want to do in life. Not yet takes away the intimidation factor, not yet puts no boundaries on your skill set, on what you can learn, and what you can do with your life.

Dear Me: Thoughts as a Developing Writer

Dear Me,

You have always considered yourself to be an excellent and capable writer, and that’s completely true. However i would ask you to consider that you can still improve and grow as a writer, no matter how good you are at it now. I know that you can write a good essay or personal reflection in minutes flat, but creative works and personal stories take a bit longer. I also know that you’ve been meaning to branch into vlogging for years now. Just DO IT (insert Shia Lebouf here).

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I ask that you consider taking on several poses over the coming semesters and years.

As a creative writer, a poet, story-teller, or what-have-you, i ask that you try to tap into your creative and imagination centers. I ask that you do not take the easy route and lift ideas from your favorite novels or authors. I know it’s hard to write a beginning, middle, and end, so don’t start there, start with anything. A setting, a character, an idea, anything. Just write. I want you to really try to come up with new characters and stories that are unique and important to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t borrow other people’s ideas or perspectives, but you can’t just copy-paste. You have to make it your own. Vlogging isn’t what everyone would call writing, but it’s another form of communication. Scripting a vlog is very different from a blog, essay, or short story. I ask that you give it your best shot. Don’t just wing it in front of the camera. Give yourself some talking points, write it out, run it by other people, have a purpose and a reason behind saying what you are saying. I think that if you just took a chance on yourself and gave it a shot you would find that you are more than capable of producing riveting stories, poems, essay, blogs, vlogs, and anything else you put your mind to.

I also ask that you become an editor. Don’t be afraid of coming back, editing, and reviewing your own work. It can always be improved and you can always add new and interesting ideas to your work. Of course there is a point where you have to call it good and let go of the piece, but i know that you tend to just leave it one and done. Please come back to your writing and please make editing your habit. It will only improve your work.

Best wishes and regards,

Sarah

A Creative Leap

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Nobody ever said that writing was easy, and if they do then they’ve never been challenged as a writer and creator. We are all trained in academic writing from a very young age, a practice which doesn’t seem to have made it any easier for the average student. Outside of English majors and bloggers, it seems like no one really wants to write anymore. I must confess that a solid 99% of my writings for two decades were for school and academic purposes. Not that the writing doesn’t have any worth, I consider my academic writings to be some of my best work; thoughtful, well-argued, and with a distinct personal flair. However I didn’t embark on creative writing until late high school, and didn’t write more than a poem or two in my spare time until college.

I took a creative writing class in college because I thought it would challenge me and expand my writing capabilities. Boy was I right. Although I had no trouble grasping the content of the class, focusing creative energy into a storyline, or meaningful poem is incredibly difficult if you’ve never done it before, which I really hadn’t. I produced a collection of ten poems for that class, forcing me to be creative and stretch my writing muscles in ways I never had before._60386423_ink_thinkstock.jpg

The poems are a symbolic achievement for me. Proof that I have creative writing talent, proof that I can self-express in my writing and explore emotion in a new way. As a writer, student, and teacher I think that self-expression through writing is one of the greatest tools for self-learning, self-growth, and opening the mind to new opinions and ideas. Learning how to express yourself through writing teaches you how to understand and express yourself in your relationships and the everyday. Self-understanding leads to greater self-confidence and a more sure-footed approach to the pitfalls and perils of life.

Writing creatively introduces you to yourself. It can be scary and challenging, but the writing you produce will make an impact. We are all drawn to raw emotion, real moments that we can connect and relate to in writing. Good books, poems, even essays, and everything else in between reflect the inner workings of its authors mind and the questions they crave to answer.

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And that’s what good literature, and good writing, really is: self-expression, a desire to share your perspective with another, a little (or a lot) of creativity and imagination, and just the right words to fill up the page.