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Building a School Culture of High Standards

by Ron Berger

Building a Standard
A Shift from Quantity to Quality
A Shift in the Distinction Between School Life and Outside Life
A Shift in the Conception of Art
A Shift in the Modes of Support and Assessment in the Classroom

Just about everyone in education talks about high standards-- standards for student behavior, responsibility and thoughtfulness, standards for investment in work and dedication to work, and standards for the quality of work completed. Educators everywhere share a goal of creating a learning environment which fosters, demands, and celebrates high standards. There is not, however, agreement on what this environment should look like, nor how it is best achieved. There is currently, and has always been, a great deal of debate among educators regarding what models of schooling best support high standards. For all this debate, there doesn't seem to be much discussion or understanding of where standards originate. Every student in every classroom already carries around a notion of acceptable standards. Where this notion comes from is not clear. Because the origin of standards is poorly understood, I believe schools spend a great deal of time saying they want high standards while doing a great deal to undermine them.

As an elementary school teacher concerned with this issue, I'd like to offer a description of an approach to learning which I think is unusually effective in creating a school environment of high standards. I don't contend that it's the only effective approach, but simply one that seems to have worked very well in my classroom and in the public school in which I teach. I hope through this description to shed light on some of the factors governing standards which I believe are not often considered or addressed in many school environments, or are addressed in a manner which tends to erode standards rather than cultivate them.

It is not an approach I invented; I take no credit for its premises or strategies. It is an approach I learned primarily from other educators, many of whom are fellow teachers at my school. These teachers have served as models for me and as sources of inspiration over the past twelve years. I have seen this approach used effectively in a number of other schools, public and private, and all four of the public elementary schools in my small school district share much of its philosophy and orientation. Also, some well-known educational movements, such as Foxfire programs and the Process Writing movement, often exemplify its student-directed and "student-owned" nature.

My personal contribution to this approach lies simply in my attempt here to present a portrait of a classroom in which it is used throughout the day, and in a particular passion I have in wedding this general approach to an effort to integrate arts into all aspects of learning. In my classroom, I've tried to build an environment where art is more than a decoration or supplement for work, but rather a primary context in which most information is learned and shared. The infusion of arts has, I believe, had a profound effect on student understanding, investment, and standards.

I need to acknowledge that this classroom approach is not an easy one. It demands of teachers a willingness to abandon textbooks as much as possible, to gather and create resources themselves, and to work together. It demands of administrators a willingness to sanction and support teachers in doing this. It demands of everyone in the school the courage to trust children with a great deal of responsibility and autonomy. Many of the specific strategies used in my classroom and school could not be easily transferred to other school environments, due to differences in size, support, orientation, and structure of the school day. This shouldn't negate their value, as my goal is to share an approach, a way of thinking, rather than a blueprint for change. My hope is that aspects of this approach may be of some value in any school setting, and that they may spark interest in beginning to restructure classrooms or schools, even on a small scale.

I always describe my own teaching situation as privileged. It is not privileged with respect to finances or resources-- it is a regular public school in a rural town. The privilege stems rather from having small school community, and a staff and administration which is innovative, talented, and cooperative. Though this approach is often controversial in its methods, the school staff where I work has won over the hearts of a fairly conservative town community through their dedication, and through the extraordinary success this approach has had with the town's children. As a whole, students not only do well on standardized testing measures, but importantly and demonstrably do well in real life measures of learning. They are capable and confident readers, writers, and users of math; they are strong thinkers and workers; they treat others well.

Before I begin, let me first clarify two aspects of my comments which I fear may be misleading. First, my descriptions of this approach in practice tend to be examples from my individual classroom. This feels more comfortable and honest than presuming I can speak for the whole school, and my explanations can be more specific and sure. It doesn't, though, paint a clear picture of how much the school culture as a whole makes this classroom possible. I receive students who are already steeped in this learning approach, who are often brimming with interest, dedication, and sensitivity; as a sixth grade teacher I simply put the icing on this cake. The structure of the school as a whole, with its collegial support and its celebration of student learning, makes my classroom work possible. So while my thoughts here more accurately describe a classroom culture of standards than a school culture, the structure which undergirds this classroom is absolutely a school culture.

Second, the descriptions of my classroom and school, drawn in the interest of illustrating the merit in this learning approach, dwell on the positive. Leaving out much of the confusion, arguments, disappointments, and mistakes in a school paints a picture of a school which is too perfect to be true. The staff at my school, like the staff at any school, sits around the teacher's room at times and feels despondent; I leave my classroom some days angry and discouraged. A parent visit to the school office is as likely to be a concern as a compliment. Nobody, ever, feels that things are near perfect. Teaching is never an easy job, and I apologize ahead of time for the way in which short written descriptions of successful projects and events tend to be smoother and more perfect than real life. Understanding this dilemma of communication, and recognizing how immodest is this method of using my own school as a model, I am still so heartened with the success achieved there that I felt compelled to share it with a wider audience.

Traditionally, the locus of standards in a classroom is seen to reside in the teacher: a teacher with high expectations and real power can demand and generate high standards of work and behavior. This teacher power may be the result of a particularly engaging or intimidating teacher personality, or may be the result of students choosing to invest this teacher with power, due to cultural or family pressure, personal career goals, or a desire to please. I don't want to belittle the importance of the teacher's role, and I certainly try to use personal power in whatever positive ways I can to motivate my students. Seeing standards as exclusively emanating from the teacher is, however, a weak model. First, it simply isn't true: many other factors, including school structure, classroom structure, curriculum, school materials, family background, cultural background, socioeconomic class, student personality, and peer group are also operative in establishing student standards. Second, even given the crucial role of teachers in the formulation of student standards, many teachers in this culture and in this time simply don't have a deep level of power over students. Using grades, praise, and punishment, they may be able to make students behave and function, but for a number of reasons they don't have the power to make them do inspired work. Third, if the teacher is the locus of all standards, then standards of work can become a game simply to please the teacher, and are not necessarily carried out of the classroom and into life.

An alternative perspective is seeing the individual student as the locus of standards: each student should independently internalize a high level of standards for his or her performance that is independent of the strengths of his or her particular teacher. While I could never argue against students internalizing high standards, I feel that this model too is often a weak one. Internalization is often viewed as an individual process-- a choice of the child-- which is out of the school's domain of power. A teacher may say: "Jessica really cares about her work, but Jennifer! She's hopeless". The implication is that Jessica has internalized high standards, Jennifer does not, and, due to academic ability, personality, or family and class background, this is probably the way things will stay. Attempts to persuade Jennifer on an individual level to internalize high standards may not have met with much success.

Both of these models essentially ignore a locus of power which is often the crucial determinant of student behavior and performance, and which grows only more dominant as a child progresses through school: the power of the peer group and of peer culture. Acceptance and approval from peers governs to a great extent the way children dress, speak, and behave; clearly it governs much in how they approach school. This is recognized plainly in extreme examples: even the most gifted of teachers would have trouble reaching a teenager belonging to a street gang which ridicules schooling. It is recognized much less often in mundane examples: a third-grade student who spends all week worrying about his performance in kickball games, not caring at all about his school work, because success in kickball is valued and rewarded in his group of friends and success with school work is ignored or disdained. What is considered important to the peer group, what is "cool", will inevitably be a central focus for all children. Consider the potential of a classroom where high standards are considered "cool".

There is a vital connection between standards and self-esteem. Many of the students who are characterized as having low standards for their work are students with low self-esteem. We try to build the self-esteem of such students through support and coaching, but as teachers our power is limited: much of their self-esteem is governed by their perception of how peers view them, not what the teacher thinks. If embracing higher standards for work would increase peer approval and acceptance, this represents a much more powerful motivation for many students than teacher approval.

I would like to offer here an approach to learning where the locus of classroom standards is centered neither in the teacher nor the individual student, but rather in a classroom culture, imbedded in a consonant school culture. This classroom culture contains the teacher and each individual student, the peer groups of students, but also transcends them: it is a framework which governs the learning and social interaction of all classroom members, and builds norms for a new peer culture.

Culture is a powerful concept. It goes deeper than what is spoken, deeper, even, than what is consciously understood Students in my classroom probably couldn't articulate exactly why they try so hard at their work and probably haven't even stopped to fully analyze it. Similarly, as members of a larger culture, we rarely stop to think about how many of our personal attitudes and actions are simply reflections of cultural norms. Culture defines how people function, and to some extent, even how they think. If a notion of high standards is not simply included in classroom culture but is actually at the core of this culture, then high standards become the norm.

This is all fine in the abstract, but a picture and understanding of how this culture looks in practice is needed. Painting this picture is, for me, a difficult task. A visit to my classroom in action, where I can often leave the room for twenty minutes and students don't even notice, as they are gripped in project work, would be much more compelling and persuasive than my words here could hope to be. Even this, however, would be inadequate, as it would fail to disclose how the environment was built, and what unspoken norms define its social structure.

I thought perhaps the most helpful approach would be to contrast this culture to that in a hypothetical "traditional" classroom, and describe the shifts in attitude and structure which would need to take place in order to transform this traditional classroom into one centered in this type of culture of high standards. For clarity, I have gathered these many small changes into four categories which represent overarching shifts in focus.

A Shift from Quantity to Quality

Schools can sometimes take on the feel of a production shop, students cranking out an endless flow of final products without much personal investment or care. The emphasis is on keeping up with production, not falling behind in classwork or homework, rather than in producing something of lasting value. Like a fast food restaurant, the products are neither creative nor memorable. Teachers create and fuel this situation, despite the fact that we grow tired of repetitive, trivial assignments, and dread correcting piles of such work.

Turning in final drafts of work every day, often many times in one day, even the most ambitious of students must compromise standards continually simply to keep up with the pace. Internalized high standards are no defense against a system which demands final draft work at this rate. If an adult writer, scientist, historian, visual artist, was asked to turn in a finished piece of work every day, two or three finished pieces on some days, how much care could he or she put into each?

An alternative is a project-centered approach. In this structure, students still work hard every day, but their work is instead a small part of a long-range, significant project. Daily work entails the creation or revision of early drafts of a piece, the continued research of a topic or management of an experiment, or the perfection of one component of a large piece of work. Final drafts or presentations of completed projects are no longer trivial events occurring every day, but are special events, moments of individual and class pride and celebration.

This longer process allows time for students to produce work of real personal value and of substantial depth and quality. It allows time for multiple drafts, rehearsals, or experimental trials. It allows time for serious critiquing of unfinished work- teacher critique, peer critique, and self critique. When managed well, this long creative process can foster a collective sense of classroom expectation and pride so that students revel in each other's success, and would be a bit embarrassed to undermine the quality of class culture by sharing a halfhearted project. They would be letting other students down to do so. This whole-group ownership of standards may seem implausible, but it is a common phenomenon in certain life contexts: in sporting events, music or dance recitals, or theater, any group member who is net putting real effort into his or her performance lets the group down, and group members are often made to be acutely aware of this. If a sports team or the cast of a play is performing well, there is a group spirit where peers cheer each other on, help each other, and push for higher standards. This spirit would never develop if all the athletes did was practice skills in drills and never played a game together, or if all the actors did was practice skills and never put together a play. Similarly, this sense of pride can be achieved in the classroom, but not if all students do is practice skills and complete trivial exercises, and never put together impressive projects which are shared with pride with a wider audience.

There is not a specific model for these projects-- I've seen a wide range of successful ideas and structures in different schools. It may be a group of first graders writing and "publishing" small novels to be placed in their school library; it may be a group of fifth graders mapping their neighborhood stores for a guide they hope to sell; it may be a group of high school chemistry students testing mouthwash and deodorant samples for a class-published consumer magazine. Across the range though, there are common features to the successful projects I've seen. All allow and require students to be creative, to make decisions, and to take real responsibility for their own work. All include a substantial focus on reaming new academic or artistic skills or perfecting those skills in practice, and all use the project as a framework in which skills are acquired and polished. And, importantly, all provide a forum for sharing finished work with a wider audience.

These projects are different from the traditional school project model, which I refer to here as the "science fair model". In the science fair model, project topics are often chosen arbitrarily. They do not represent the culmination of a shared classroom study, a synthesis of school learning, but instead are somewhat random individual student (or parent) choices pursued in widely variant structures. The projects are primarily or entirely researched and completed at home, sometimes at the last minute, and their connection to school work is often marginal. Quality of work varies incredibly, and is sometimes most clearly tied to parental assistance. Standards for assessing the projects are often unclear and unarticulated, and appear to students to be the subjective caprice of the teacher. Many students produce poor work and some to not complete the work at all.

In contrast, this project model does not preclude work at home, but it uses the school as the hub of creation, as a project workshop. The overall quality of work to emerge from this workshop, not just individual quality, is a vital and explicit concern. If any student is failing to succeed, if any student is producing work without effort or care, it is a problem for the whole workshop. Project structure must therefore make it impossible for individuals to fail or fall far behind. Through continual conferences, critique sessions, and peer and teacher support, student progress is sustained and assessed at all points during the creation process. Projects are often planned with distinct checkpoints through which each student passes on the road to completion, with explicit methods and procedures which must be followed at each stage. The resulting display of completed projects from such a workshop, such a class, is characterized by universal success and whole-class pride.

Universal success does not mean uniformity. Though the structure which braces and guides student progress is common to every project, each student's project is unique. The structure provides a frame for common learning and critique, as well as appraisal of progress, but it also has room for significant creative expression and direction by individual students. If every student in a classroom prepares a guidebook to a different local building, the steps and skills involved may be somewhat prescribed: conducting interviews, researching local history, consulting city records, trying to obtain blueprints, doing sketches, taking photographs, preparing diagrams, writing and proofreading drafts of text, preparing illustrations, composing book layout, and learning book binding. Within this frame though, individual students have substantial latitude for artistic choices: the choice of building, the choice of whom to interview, the use of research and interviews, the nature of text and illustrations, the balance of text and illustrations, the use of photographs or diagrams, the tone of presentation, and the layout of the finished book.

As much as possible, these projects should represent "real work", work that is original and offers something of value to a wider community. Third grade students interviewing senior citizens to prepare biographies of them are doing something much more than a classroom exercise. They are engaged in an activity which can generate real interest and perhaps profound effects in the lives of those seniors and their families. They are building unique relationships, and gaining personal insight. They are building a bridge between school and community. They are producing an artifact which may actually be treasured by someone. The reason for high standards of research, organization, written language, and visual presentation in these biographies is not due to some arbitrary teacher decision: this is real, important work. If the work for this project includes learning and practicing new concepts or techniques of writing, or learning twentieth century US history, there is a clear reason and immediate application for acquiring this knowledge and skill.

If high school science students continually reproduce lab experiments directly out of a book, with not only a prescribed procedure but a specific prescribed outcome, what's the point? Most will put little heart into learning lab technique and concepts if all they do is trivial practice like a basketball team with all drills and no games. If, however, these students learn lab skills in preparation for, and in the process of, designing an original investigation to share with others, there is a whole new level of investment.

A fine example of a "real work" project occurred at my school during a yearlong whole-school study of water, a cross-disciplinary study which included history, geography, literature, music, visual art, biology, geology, and chemistry. One aspect of this water study concerned an investigation of the purity of drinking water in town wells. The school embarked on a water testing project which involved every student, Kindergarten through sixth grade. Working collaboratively with a local college, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students were taught by college students proper methods of obtaining water samples from private homes, and they in turn taught these methods to the rest of the school. Every student took samples from his or her home, most helped parents to draw a map of his or her home, road, and well location, and then submitted these to upper grade students. A group of upper grade students went to the college lab and over a series of days learned to run analysis machines, where the samples were tested for pH, sodium, and lead content. Some students videotaped the analysis process and later the entire process was explained to the school in a presentation by students. A giant map of the town with every student house was put together, and results of tests were plotted on the map as they came in, while students searched for patterns in the data.

No one needed to be reminded of the real-life significance of this work. Parents and the news media called the school continually to ask about results. Well contamination, if it existed, was no academic issue, it was an issue of the health and safety of families. The town board of health anxiously awaited results. Legal questions arose: What if we found contamination? Were the student tests accurate? Was the school liable for the panic and expense which might ensue? And through all of this, students were at the center testing the samples, tabulating and plotting the results, presenting findings to the wider school, speaking to reporters. Luckily for everyone involved, no dangerous levels were discovered, but some well results were enough of a concern for families to pursue further, private, testing. Needless to say, no one needed to remind students during this exciting and arduous project of the need for impeccable standards of research of presentation. Students, themselves, feeling responsible for the work, became the loudest voices for quality control.

Not all project work can be this connected to real life and not all skills can be learned most effectively within the context of projects. In my classroom, most math work and occasional work in other subjects is given independent focus. Most of the day, though, lessons and work, either on an individual or group basis, are directly connected to projects of real substance. Whether these projects are "small" ventures, lasting a few weeks, or ambitious ones which span a few months, they are all viewed as important enterprises by everyone involved and are shared with the wider school community.

My sixth grade students, walking back from recess, pass through a library with displays of futuristic home models designed by second graders, mystery novels by fifth graders, amphibian field guides and maps of local ponds crafted by third and fourth graders. This is their school heritage--impressive, meaningful projects-- and as sixth graders they feel compelled to show that their work can be equally, or hopefully more, striking. Conversely, when first graders sit in an assembly and listen to my sixth grade class describe how they put together a rock and mineral store, selling specimens they collected and jewelry they made, these first graders look ahead with excitement to the scale and sophistication of projects which will be available to them as they grow. The projects of older students, and the investment of older students in those projects, serve as models for children growing up in this school. In a peer culture sense, to be "cool" in this school means entering this heritage of producing elegant and powerful work.

Unfortunately, this written forum allows me no real way to demonstrate the quality of this work and the high standards they embody. When I share this teaching approach with other educators in person, the core of my presentation is a wealth of actual student work, projects from my classroom. The quality and care in this work speaks for itself. Sometimes I bring students themselves along to be presenters, as skills in oral communication and teaching are as much a focus of school care as written skills. Not only does this provide a wonderful opportunity for the particular students, but it allows people to see that this impressive work indeed comes from ordinary kids. The quality of this work has often led educators viewing it, at a workshop or in a quick visit to my classroom, to assume that it is the product of "gifted" students. I must explain to them that the only "gifted" aspect of these children is the incredibly high standards which motivate and govern their work.

When asked to verify the success of a school, most administrators and teachers point to successful scores on standardized tests. I am not shy to point out that students in my school do well on such tests, as these tests carry an absurd degree of importance in society. I even teach students how to be good test takers. I never, though, confuse test scores with real learning and real work. When asked to verify the success in my school, I would pack up the student projects from a classroom and bring them to show. Not the projects of the "brightest" students, but all the projects. These projects demonstrate more than a mastery of skills, they demonstrate an internalized dedication and ability in planning and crafting quality work. Once a student leaves school, she is judged for her whole life on her ability to produce such work, not on her ability to take tests. To structure learning around the creation of such work, rather than around the ability to memorize facts for tests, seems not only sensible, but vital.

A Shift in the Distinction between School Life and Outside Life

In this approach to teaching, the more the boundary between school life and outside life begins to blur, and even dissolve, the richer and deeper both learning experiences and standards can become. When students view school as the only setting for learning and for the creation of academic or artistic work (aside from homework which they're forced to do), limitations on standards are painful. If, on the other hand, students view afternoons, evenings, and weekends as ripe for project work, a whole new level of standards is possible. Few of the impressive projects in my classroom or school could have been completed without a substantial student commitment to working, by choice, outside of school.

The ramifications of students viewing their work as whole-day, whole-week pursuit, rather than an 8:30-2:45, Monday-Friday, designated worktime pursuit, are tremendous. First of all, the amount of time available for work, particularly for focused, sustained independent work increased incredibly. A perennial teacher complaint is that after the bureaucratic interruptions of attendance, announcements, specialists, recess times, lunch times, special education pullouts, and group movement, there are precious few minutes left in the day for serious work. Whatever time is available for work is generally split into small segments in different subjects so that every subject will be "covered". The actual time available during a "traditional" school day for the serious, sustained pursuit of a topic is very small indeed. While students are not always viewed as clamoring for more work time, it is clear that any student who grows excited in investigating or crafting a project during school is bound to be almost immediately interrupted and sent on to the next item on the schedule.

In addition to providing great additional time for work, this shift in how the school-outside life boundary is perceived by students, teachers, and parents has far-ranging effects. When students bring work home voluntarily and pursue it there with care and passion, parents often become involved and invested in their children's projects and studies and almost always become more understanding and supportive of the school's work. Seeing their child take such interest in learning and in crafting quality work is heartening and inspiring for parents. I have watched many families with traditional, conservative visions toward schooling evolve from being suspicious critics of my school to being staunch supporters of its methods. When a child comes home from school and is immediately excited to continue a school project, it's an arresting experience; however "newfangled" the school may seem, it's difficult for the parents to remain cynical.

A fine example of this parental connection occurred with a student of mine who had substantial disabilities in memory and in most academic areas. His parents had decided that a standard secondary school program was a waste of time; they had already planned a manual career for him and planned on vocational school beginning in eighth grade. Their opinion of his skills and mental ability was quite low, and they made this clear: he was a "good" kid, but without talent, except in sports. This child, though, had been wonderfully supported and challenged in my school and came to me as a sixth grader ready for even more serious project work. He crafted over a period of a month an original blueprint for a home, part of a class project, which was the most striking in the class and is a piece of work that I still carry with me as an example of student work. Every adult who has seen it marvels over its quality. This student worked intensely on this project at home, afternoons, evenings, and weekends. His father, a carpenter who was well aware of the complexity of blueprints, was incredulous to see his son work in this manner. Not only was his son dedicated and focused, but he was capable of measuring and crafting a standard scale rendering of a home which was accurate, sophisticated, and beautiful. This student's parents came to feel that they were no longer certain what their child was capable of, and that it was wise to keep his future options open.>

The extension of "schoolwork" into outside life, or more accurately the pursuit of projects which are no longer seen as "schoolwork," but rather as life projects, changes student attitudes toward learning. Resources for knowledge are broadened from the classroom and teacher to include the outside world, including family, friends, neighbors, and local experts. The projects students undertake are small versions of real-life work, using real-life sources of information, and in this way make educational opportunities of outside life plain to students. Education ceases to be a classroom event which stops at 2:45 and becomes a way of looking at life. I often cite the phone calls that teachers in my school receive from students, or ex-students, on evenings, weekends, and during the summer, sharing new discoveries or extensions of projects begun in school. I keep stacks of letters from ex-students to share with educators who may be skeptical that this outlook on learning continues after leaving the classroom.

That this shift in the boundaries of "school work" is powerful is apparent; let me now share techniques of how this outlook might be cultivated. For simplicity, I will speak in terms of my own classroom, though these strategies are used throughout the school and in many schools.

First, I get the students out of the school as much as possible. Field trips are an integral part of all major studies. We visit caves, mountains, sawmills, factories, laboratories, artist studios, retail stores, farms, hospitals, private homes, colleges, other elementary schools, and various other sites. These trips are chore to plan, and often exhausting to manage. The payback though, in student and teacher excitement and investment is well worth the trouble. Because we have no money for buses, all trips are accomplished with parent drivers. Almost all families have two working parents, so arranging field trips takes a preliminary and ongoing effort to persuade parents to take a day off work to help with their child's education. While this is a tiring task, it has hidden benefits. Students are prepared extremely well for field trips-- already possessing an impressive knowledge of the area under study-- and parents accompanying us on trips are invariably delighted to see these students shine in this way, asking perceptive questions and exhibiting real interest. Parent loyalty to the classroom, school, and it's methods is forged in these occasions and parents begin to feel an ownership of educational goals. Parents, teachers, and students are all learners together. Most of all, these trips serve to put learning and knowledge clearly in the sphere of life, rather than simply in books and classroom studies.

Second, outside experts are brought into the classroom to speak with students whenever possible. These experts may be professionals in a field, sharing information in an area we're studying, they may be individuals coming in to critique or assist with artistic or academic skills, and they may be people just coming in to share firsthand stories from their lives which bear on our work Some of these "experts" are professors, craftspeople, or business people, some are parents or siblings of students, some are even ex-students or students from other classrooms. Once again, students are prepared thoroughly for each visitor so that they are not only polite, but are sophisticated and astute in listening and responding. Some experts are hard to line up for the first visit, but most are so pleased and excited by the level of interest and knowledge in the students that subsequent visits are easy to schedule. One professional Egyptologist, whom I think had never presented to students below the graduate level, begrudgingly lowered her fee to visit us and allowed us an hour talk. She was so astonished at the students' passion for ancient Egypt and their knowledge of history and hieroglyphics that she stayed all morning, helping students to translate hieroglyphics and sharing stories. She offered to guide us free of charge on an upcoming museum trip, and stayed in touch all year.

These outside experts serve to keep me fresh and excited as a teacher, and serve as models for students. They interest students in careers and expand their world. They encourage students to acknowledge and utilize the resources in their own community and home. And they allow students to watch me, as teacher, learn along with them.

Third, I try to involve parents and families in school projects and studies as much as possible. Aside from field trips and giving presentations, parents and siblings are also invited to school regularly to listen to presentations by students or outsiders. Sometimes these events are held in the evening to encourage attendance. Families are encouraged to take interest in projects and their help is welcomed. Some projects are specifically designed to be community projects. Ten years ago I was introduced by a fellow teacher to a technique of using long-range, community participation math problems through the work of mathematician Robert Wirtz. In these problems, the solution is actually a set of hundreds of smaller solutions, which are pursued independently by students and their families. Everyone's input and expertise is valued, students, siblings, parents, grandparents, neighbors, and the resulting final solution is a community, rather than a classroom victory. I remember being called to the phone once at a noisy party one Saturday night to hear the voices of excited students who had found a solution to one part of such a problem, and searched all evening to locate me. I had a parent once who basically ignored his job for weeks, working with us to solve one of these problems (we did, much thanks to his help).

Last, and perhaps most important, I try to establish a flexible, and to some extent student- directed, structure of determining where and when work is completed. Initially, this structure is fairly rigid and teacher directed. At the beginning of the year, it's usually clear what is classwork and what is homework, and this line is essentially the same for all students. As the year progresses, though, students begin, with my encouragement, to plan their own time. Students individually, or as a group, help decide deadlines for work, which could be whole-class deadlines, individual deadlines, or perhaps deadlines which are suggested, but not firm. Students begin an elaborate process of individual negotiation with me as to the best use of their individual class time. If, for example, a piece of a writing project is due from everyone on Thursday, so that we can have a shared critique and lesson on that day, I may set aside writing periods Tuesday and Wednesday for this work. Students, though, will often approach me individually and explain they would prefer to use the period for a map they're drafting, research they're doing, or even for cleaning out the tank where our classroom turtles live. If they agree to do the work at home, and have proven responsible in this regard in the past, they know they have strong negotiating power and I would, except in rare instances, agree.

Throughout the year, I schedule the day with clear work-times for particular studies or projects, but as the year progresses, it's rare that individual work times are used uniformly. Some students find school to be much more organized and spacious than their crowded home, and like to use school time for large, artistic projects that would be difficult at home. They prefer to use home for tasks which don't require physical care, such as reading and first drafts of writing. These students often use writing periods to draft graphic work, using the school's art materials. Other students are just the opposite and enjoy going home to work on artistic aspects of projects in the afternoon, perhaps listening to the radio, and use school time much more to get ahead on writing, reading, or math work to free up time at home. Because project work tends to involve a great range of academic and artistic skills, setting aside time in class for work on a particular project often plainly suggests a flexible notion of classwork where different students work on various different components of their projects at the same time.

Clearly, this is a scary process for a teacher: it's hard enough to get kids to do work on time when deadlines and tasks are clear and rigid, what a mess it would be if students had this much choice! Strangely, it isn't really as hard as it sounds. Students are given power over their time and work only as they earn it, by showing they can make responsible choices, can follow through on promises, and can plan their time wisely. This comes quickly for some children, slowly for others. The level of teacher-imposed time structure that each student needs, and indeed wants, varies from student to student, and the teacher can adjust this accordingly, being frank in negotiations with the student. I can't say that's it's an easy process for me, nor that I don't make mistakes in negotiating work with students and find myself disappointed at times. I can't say, though, that this structure encourages and rewards students for rising to their highest level of responsibility and maturity and has a profound effect. Every student wants to be trusted and respected, and even students I've taught with serious problems in emotional stability, behavior, or academic skills have worked very hard to have the responsibility of managing their own time.

This process of negotiation is not some mysterious technique that I invented: it is what almost all teachers do every day-- students approach them all day long with requests for changes in deadlines, use of class time, and the nature and length of work, and these teachers bargain with students to the extent that they feel the student has shown responsibility in the past. It was a breakthrough for me, however, to acknowledge this process as a positive learning experience which can be made explicit in class culture, and can be used to demonstrably encourage and reward independent maturity. Rather than seeing these moments of negotiation as idiosyncratic exceptions to a class norm, they become the class norm. It is expected that students will plan and think for themselves and bargain with me to find mutually acceptable adjustments within guidelines of work. While it may appear that this process of allowing individual adjustment in the timing and nature of work would only create confusion-- a class of students working at different paces with different standards-- in practice the opposite has been true. Students are so appreciative to have a hand in directing their own work that they often work twice as hard to prove themselves to be responsible. The more they arc visibly responsible in completing work within agreed guidelines, the greater their currency for future negotiations. In an unusual example, two very self-directed students approached me last year and asked if they could take a two week break from math. They wanted to focus instead on a shared project, and promised to catch up on the two weeks they missed by doing an intensive after-school focus on math after the two weeks was complete. These students had such strong negotiating currency that it took me only a few moments to smile at their bargaining technique and agree. They worked so hard to prove to me how wise I was in trusting them that I shared their example with the whole class, hoping to inspire more such initiative.

Like college students, these sixth graders learn to plan and manage their whole week, days, evenings, and weekends, in a manner which suits their abilities to focus and work While one might argue that eleven and twelve year olds don't have the maturity of college students to use time wisely, as the stepparent of two college students often caught up in social distractions, I think I could make just the opposite argument at times.

This notion of using the whole week for work, of dissolving the boundary between in-school and out, connotes a new perspective on time: we are in charge of time, rather than time being in charge of us. The classroom teacher must take a leadership role in asserting this power. If, at 10:20, a teacher says "Put your projects away and take out your math books", and no amount of student pleading, no circumstances (such as an upcoming presentation) can ever make that teacher abandon the schedule, the message is clear. Prearranged scheduling is more important than quality of work. Time rules standards and nothing can be done about this. These same students, at 2:45, will close their minds to work, just as they closed up their projects at 10:20; the schedule says school is done and its time for play. Some days in my classroom, project work is so intense and excited that all other work-- math groups, reading work, even recess soccer games-- are put aside and the day becomes six hours of unwavering project preparation. These days are productive beyond description.

What a luxury, most teachers would say. In an elementary school where students continually leave the room for specialists, special education tutoring, or other classrooms, or much worse, in a middle school or high school where the day is divided into 40 minute periods, how could there ever be this sustained opportunity for work? I feel this is indeed a luxury, and a wonderful one; it is one of the reasons I have spent so much of my life at this school. Leaving this structure for the compartmentalization and rigid scheduling of a secondary school would be painful. It is important to recognize, though, that this luxury does not stem from money or class privilege: this is a regular public school. This luxury is the product of conscious decisions on the part of the school personnel to respect the sanctity of classroom culture. Special education students are fully mainstreamed in my school, and do not leave for specialists. Teachers are trusted to plan their own days as they deem best. There is no reason why any elementary school could not adopt this orientation, if the administration, teachers and community were willing to try. And while the scheduling of the secondary school day has an almost unquestioned and religious respect in our society, you can be sure that if I were the principal of a middle school or high school that I would do everything in my power to change this structure, and to introduce the potential for sustained project work wherever possible. There are formidable obstacles, but successes like Elliot Wigginton's Foxfire Magazine project, which has persevered for twenty-five years within a public high school, are a testament to the fact that these obstacles are not insurmountable.

A Shift in the Conception of Art

What does a conception of art have to do with high standards? It would be possible to attend an educational conference on High Standards in Learning and never hear the word art mentioned. During times of "educational crisis", (such as every year for the last twenty-five, if one subscribes to media conceptions), art is the first thing discarded from schools. Interestingly, in the teaching approach I embrace, art is at the core of standards.

To understand this entails a shift in a conception of art from something which dwells in museums or concert halls, which is how most adults in this society view it, or something which lasts from 1:45 to 2:30 on Thursday afternoons (barring budget cuts), which is how most students in this society view it. It means seeing art as inextricably a part of all that we produce and share, which is how many Kindergartners view it. Kindergartners may not articulate this in the abstract, but they may be happy to paint a picture, sing a song, and create a fantasy play to share with you their ideas and feelings.

All student project work in my classroom is shared with others in some expressive medium. It may be through expository writing, fiction, or poetry; through drama, dance or music; through illustrations, diagrams, models, maps, photographs, or video; through formal presentations or lessons; and most commonly through some combination of these media Each of these expressive forms represents a medium which can be viewed aesthetically, critiqued aesthetically, and used with aesthetic skill and power. Every classroom project is viewed with aesthetic eyes, and everyone strives for aesthetic mastery of media.

An unspoken commandment in this classroom is that if you're going to share a final draft, a final presentation of a project, you do it well. You make it impressive, exciting, memorable. If it's a project in history or science, you not only research it with rigor, but you try to share it in a persuasive, elegant, and compelling manner. If it's a presentation, make it powerful! Use drama, music, slides, graphics, illustrations; refine and rehearse it. If it's a written project, include maps and diagrams, make a provocative cover, lay it out clearly and instructively; make it look good! All of these concerns, and the skills involved in addressing them, are part of this concept of art.

Conceptions of art vary widely across different world cultures and over time. One lens through which to view these conceptions is the extent to which each is an elite conception, as opposed to a universal conception. In an elite conception, real art is produced only by a gifted few, and fully appreciated by an audience only slightly larger. At the other end of the continuum is a notion of art as being something every person can create and appreciate, and the process of personal creation and appreciation transcends in importance the existence of "high art."

I was schooled in an era which had just begun to celebrate universal notions of art. My art teachers in public school would announce to the class: "You are all artists!", a statement which would have been thought crazy in other eras of history. The influx of this notion of universality brought much which I think was positive: support for expression and experimentation, an affirmation of the importance of artistic modes of sharing, and perhaps most importantly, an acknowledgment that one learns about art through practice, not simply through academic study.

The spirit of this em, however, had some weaknesses. In an effort to support and encourage expression, notions of standards became confusing, and were pushed aside or buried. They did not, however, disappear. When my art teacher said: "You are all artists!', we students didn't believe it for a minute. The declaration "you are an artist" is a compliment; it is not like saying "you are a student". It means "you are a good artist". We all knew who in our class could draw well, and they were the "artists". We had clear standards (if not always helpful ones), and we wanted and needed standards, even if the teacher pretended they weren't there.

Standards are very important to children, however implausible this may seem at times to teachers. Whatever is valued highly in culture is defined by high standards. If ability in sports has a high value in scholastic peer culture, you can be sure that students in that culture can give you an intricate analysis of the standards of ability which are applied, and a ranking of every individual relative to those standards. Many students in my school would be happy to rank every school child in a hierarchical order of soccer abilities, and defend each ranking based on standards which are discussed among them daily and incessantly. Students judge how important something is to a teacher by the intensity of teacher standards for that enterprise, and sensibly so. If art is treated as a subject without clear standards, then it's clearly unimportant; students feel that even the teachers don't value it.

I feel that standards for artistic expression must be central and passionate, not pushed aside. This doesn't mean adopting a traditional perspective of western art where the work of "masters" defines all standards. It does mean that art is a world of skills and knowledge, just like sports, and in addition to being an expressive artist or athlete, there is a need to practice with dedication to gain mastery, and a reason to celebrate and model mastery in others.

It is not enough to ask students to make their work aesthetically powerful; they need to learn to understand and control aesthetic media For this reason, a great deal of school time in my classroom is spent learning and practicing artistic skills. Sometimes I serve as teacher, sometimes visiting artists serve as teachers, and following this students often teach each other in cooperative work sessions. These skills are most often taught in the context of a project which requires them, and in which they will find immediate use. When students are engaged in scientific projects, they learn drafting skills to create impressive charts and diagrams; when they are documenting a family history, they learn and perfect skills of ethnographic narrative in writing, of clarity and sensitivity in interviewing, perhaps skills in photography or illustration.

Some art lessons are planned which are outside of the context of specific projects, but are more foundational skills in drama, music, movement, writing, or graphic arts which can empower students to approach projects with more sophistication. Occasional projects, such as plays, murals, or musical performances, are connected to themes of study but are foremost an opportunity to gain knowledge and mastery in a particular artistic domain. Concepts of art, and artistic forms of reaming and knowing, are treated with the same respect as all disciplines of reaming. Artistic aspects of project work are showered with time, attention, and quality materials. In my classroom art materials are organized and treated with almost religious respect. The use and care of quality materials-- those that adult professionals might use-- contributes much to the elite sense of classroom standards. Students discuss the relative merits of various brands of artist-quality colored pencils, markers, calligraphy pens, water colors, and drafting equipment with the same intensity that they rank music groups and basketball all-stars. I encourage parents to use holiday and birthday gifts as opportunities to provide art supplies for their children. Using school funds, student-raised funds, and personal funds, I try to keep the classroom stocked so that no student is denied access to good materials.

Opening student eyes to the aesthetic decisions involved in the creation of everything around them, and the aesthetic quality inherent in the objects of daily life, impels students to view their own work with a critical eye. Let me offer a small example: Every student is asked to bring to school a box of cereal (it could just as easily be a book, record album, magazine, or a similar product). The boxes are displayed in front of the class, followed by a few sessions of lesson, critique, and discussion concerning the design of the front of the boxes. Issues of color, composition, lettering, balance, graphics are discussed, as well as psychology, concept, planning, and impact. Students then create their own box designs, experimenting to produce powerful and elegant layouts, working through a number of drafts and critiques toward a vivid final product. If these students are given time and encouragement during their next research project to prepare a cover in this manner, the difference in their work can be striking.

Is this really art? If illustration is merely an unimportant decoration for a report, if a fictional historical journal is judged simply for its historic content and not its aesthetic power, then I'm not sure. But this is not the case in my classroom. The aesthetic components of work are given as much attention and critical guidance as any part of content, often more. Let me give a specific example. Two years ago several students of mine were preparing a presentation for the whole school to explain the geological formation of the valley in which the school resides. The content of their lesson was carefully prepared, critiqued by the class, and revised. Much more time, however, was spent on the quality of their delivery. The information they needed to share wasn't difficult to gather, but the question of how to make that information clear and exciting to students as young as Kindergartners was a different story. They spent many days preparing carefully drafted and lettered charts and maps on large posterboard, getting critical feedback from individual students and the class as a whole. The quality of illustration, the choice of lettering, the layout and composition, were discussed in the type of detail one might expect in the art department of an advertising firm. Their vocal presentation, and even their physical movement during the presentation, was rehearsed and critiqued in front of the class. The final product, which was as different from the common model of students nervously reading a report in front of a group as one could imagine, was an incredible piece of teaching. The difference, I think, was art.

Still, one might ask, is it really art ? When this question arises in a presentation I am doing for educators, I pull out a piece of work by a student, and collectively examine it with the group. Some of the work in my classroom is clearly not art, like research in science, history, or math. Some is undeniably art, like abstract watercolor paintings. Most, however, is in strange a middle ground: one couldn't say it was purely art, but it would be difficult to say that it really wasn't art. At the last presentation I did, I pulled out a large diagram of a machine designed by a student which could analyze and identify rocks and minerals. As a piece of work, it's a beautiful example of scientific understanding and creativity, inventive but scrupulously accurate. With its stunning drawings, fully colored, of the machinery and specimens, and its elegant calligraphy and graphic layout, it's also a piece of work I'd like to have framed and hanging on my wall at home, a sentiment shared by some at the presentation. There was no one there who could say that this piece really wasn't art.

The idea that the line between what is art and what is not art should be hard to draw is not as strange an idea as it first sounds. In the Japanese culture, for example, almost everything is viewed aesthetically. The way food is arranged on a plate, the way cleaning is done in a home, the way apologies are given to a friend, even the manner in which one dies is viewed in aesthetic terms. Elegant Samurai deaths were often planned far in advance, and critiqued aesthetically for generations afterward. A Japanese friend of mine, preparing her resume to send to hopeful employers, shared with me that she drafted two copies of her resume: one typed, for American employers, and one done by hand with careful calligraphy, for Japanese employers. "They would never accept a typed version," she explained, "they judge my character by my calligraphy." She' also shared with me the story of a friend of hers who sent her a letter in which he apologized for being out of touch for six months, but he had injured his hand and didn't want to insult her by sending a typed or poorly written letter.

Not all in Japanese culture is consonant with my views of teaching, but the concept that even the most mundane events and products can be crafted and executed with aesthetic care describes precisely my goal in the classroom. Rough drafts can be messy and confused, that's their purpose, but final drafts should be impressive-- even on the smallest level. I know things are succeeding in this regard when math papers are turned in with elegant layout and lettering, and when I find student notes on the floor done in calligraphy. I keep a box of letters I've received in the mail from ex-students, and when people ask me if students really maintain this artistic perspective after leaving the classroom, I pull out a pile. The envelopes alone from these letters are a remarkable artistic sight.

This concept of art cultivates a culture where there are high standards for just about everything. There's no escaping it. Students even debate about aesthetic arrangements for our fish tank, and stay in at recess to rearrange it.

A Shift in the Modes of Support and Assessment in the Classroom

My comments thus far may have raised a lot of questions. What about "untalented" students? Or teachers, for that matter. People who feel incompetent in particular academic or artistic areas. What about students with pronounced disabilities in perception, memory, or motor skills? If high standards are applied to the work of everyone, won't it just emphasize the painful weaknesses of some?

What about assessment? If so much of project work is creative and individualized, and even deadlines and requirements often differ from student to student, how can fair and constructive assessment take place?

What about a sense of community? If you work to dissolve the boundaries between school and outside life, don't you destroy the precious asylum of school which provides safety and security to children?

What about the cultivation of positive personal qualities in students: politeness, thoughtfulness, cooperation, initiative, self confidence, equanimity. Environments of "high standards" are often high-stress; a high standards classroom often means fighting for teacher recognition.

I'd like to say that I, and my school, have found the definitive answers to all these questions. Of course, we haven't. We are forever confused with trying to fashion a schoolwide assessment system which fits our teaching approach and documents student progress for the community or district in a real way. We are just now undertaking an effort to begin using student portfolios as archives of individual projects and achievement, as many schools have already done. And we are continually trying to restructure our school resources and community traditions to make the school more supportive for students with disabilities, insecurities, or other factors which make them "marginal".

Nevertheless, I think there is much going on in my classroom and school that addresses these questions in powerful ways. Despite having a full range of "academic abilities" in my students, and even students of real special needs, visitors to the classroom are often bemused and skeptical that this is a "regular" group of students. The work on display looks too impressive, the focus, cooperation, investment, and friendly ease of children too good to be true. The answer, I believe, is that students in my classroom are deeply and genuinely supported in countless ways to do their best and act their best, and have been so since Kindergarten. To a great extent, this is due to the ways in which the school culture deals with issues of assistance and assessment for students, and also for teachers.

People often say to me that this learning approach works in my classroom because I am a strong teacher, or works in the school because the school has strong teachers. In fact, they say, it's importance is trivial, because it can only work with strong teachers. Your school has strong teachers, but you don't know the teachers at my school. I would never contend that this approach is easy to use, nor that my colleagues are not full of talent. This argument though, the most common dismissal of this teaching approach, bothers me for two reasons.

First, it is suspiciously similar to that of teachers who visit my room and tell me: "Oh, but your kids are all bright (or artists, or interested, or well-behaved), you should see my kids. This would never work with my class." Now the kids in my class are no special group, but somehow they seem to shine. Is it because they're inherently strong , as the school's teachers are described, or is it because the structure and culture inspires them to do their best? Granted, children are more malleable and open than adults, particularly schoolteachers (we tend to be a defensive and protective bunch). I would argue, though, that the school culture where I teach inspires teachers to do their best (though this is an argument which might generate some laughter at times in my staff room). In addition to searching for strong teachers, school cultures can be building strong teachers. Perhaps more accurately, school cultures can inspire and reward teachers for displaying their strengths more fully, by taking risks, working together, and assuming substantially more decision-making power. I would guess that children too good to be true. The answer, I believe there are more "strong" teachers than people realize, teachers whose strengths are hidden by isolation, lack of power, and lack of inspiration. The talent and spark in these teachers can be fueled with the same approach used with students in the classroom. If teachers are expected and supported to design curriculum and projects, to take risks, be original, to work together in critique and learning, teachers can often blossom just as "weak" students do. I don't mean to trivialize the difficulty in effecting teacher change, but I think it's crucial to emphasize that standards for teaching are as much a product of school culture as standards for student learning: teachers, like students, tend to settle into surrounding expectations, standards and norms.

Second, on a classroom level, saying that this approach needs a strong teacher may be true, but it doesn't begin to reveal why the approach works. The power in the approach it is that it is based in a classroom community which shares a culture. The assessment, encouragement, accountability and teaching which goes on in the classroom is vastly wider than that which emanates from me, as teacher it is a continual and ubiquitous process among students. When I think of a particular student I had last year, a painfully shy girl who was new to town, I would be crazy to take credit for her astonishing emotional and academic growth-- I could hardly get her to speak to me during the year. I take credit only for managing a classroom where countless students took time to tutor her, support her, welcome her, and guide her success.

Again, where do student standards originate? Partly from me as the teacher, but very much from watching each other. Students did quality work, treated each other well, because that is what their friends did, it was the "cool" way to be, it was what the culture supported. How do students decide what is "good enough" as work, what is good enough behavior? Teacher standards only define the minimum standards allowed, they can't define the upper limit of care. Students in my classroom look to each other, help each other, critique each other's work, most of all, push each other to achieve their best. For all of my teacher power, the power in this total culture is infinitely greater.

The culture is rooted in a class community in which the first priority is supporting everyone. The responsibility for each person's emotional well-being and success is shared by everyone; the teacher bears more of this responsibility, but each student is encouraged and expected to help his or her peers. As a teacher, this means setting up a classroom structure which allows time and space for peer collaboration and tutoring; it means complimenting students, rather than complaining, when they abandon their own work at times to assist others. Supporting others means emotional support and care as much as it means academic support and care. In this team concept, the hope is that no student will be left out, left behind, allowed to fail or feel like a failure. It's everybody's job to look out for others.

This is perhaps most apparent with students of disability. They are not sent out of the classroom or school for "special help", so that the class can move on unhindered and unburdened. Their weaknesses, like the weaknesses of all students and of the teacher, are not hidden issues. Everyone in classroom has some weaknesses, including the teacher, and its crucial that these weaknesses be acknowledged, accepted, and supported.

Even students of profound need are a part of the regular classroom; they are as much a part of the school "family", the school community, as anyone. When a student has a severe physical, emotional, or cognitive handicap, the school's special education staff works together with the classroom teacher and students to build a support system so that child can be an active, productive part of activities and friendships. All students are enlisted as helpers in this process and their emotional support is often more vital to the self esteem of the needy child than adult support. While this is neither an easy or quick process, the time is well spent: it sends a message to children that everyone in the community must and will be supported. This provides a safety net of trust which allows students to take risks. Because this net is built of students as well as teachers, it is a wide and deep net to catch children who are falling behind emotionally or academically.

For me, a culture of high standards means high standards for kindness and cooperation as much as for academic work. In the same way that careful quality in work is stressed over fast production, careful attention to treating all students fairly and thoughtfully is stressed over efficiency and speed in school logistics. "Simple" classroom decisions, such as which students should make a presentation or attend a limited event, often take a long time as they are discussed carefully with students to insure that all feelings are considered. Events and honors which are exclusionary or individualistic, displays of the "best" work or awards for the "best" students or athletes, are avoided in favor of whole-class, whole-school pride. When visitors to my classroom are impressed with student work, it is often due not to specific outstanding examples but rather to the absence of careless work, the uniform commitment to quality. This is a testament to the degree of cultural pride and peer support in the classroom.

Much of what goes on in a traditional classroom, in terms of structure of work and assessment and models of relationships, serves to undermine and negate such a supportive class culture. The model of classroom roles and assessment in my school, therefore, differs from traditional conceptions. Once again, I feel qualified to share a full analysis here only of my individual classroom, though most of the description applies just as well to any classroom in the school.

I begin the year doing a lot of modeling. Lots of teachers say they model behavior for students, and many do. Quite often teacher modeling, though, is superficial. To really model, one must do the same things as students do, so that modeling is real and fair. For me this means trying to actually do those things which I require students to do project work, math problems, cleaning the sink, caring for classroom animals, giving and accepting criticism and support-- in front of students. The most important thing I model for students is taking risks: taking the risk of sharing my real feelings with them, of trying things in front of them that I'm not good at, of admitting my mistakes and confusions, and of accepting and inviting constructive criticism from students. I share my worries and mistakes in directing the class and in planning lessons, I share the rough drafts of project work I'm pursuing along with them, criticize my own work, and invite suggestions and opinions. I don't allow rudeness or derision directed to me, just as I wouldn't allow it directed toward each of them, but I try to welcome suggestions of how I could improve and grow. If I'm trying to build an environment of risk taking and learning, I need to be the head risk taker and head learner.

Assessment must be planned so that it does not suppress risk taking and cooperation, nor discourage learners who are struggling. For this reason, very little work in my classroom and school is given formal grades, and report cards are narrative. This creates a lot of work for teachers and frustrates some parents who yearn for the finality of grades. (Most parents, however, are pleased with the careful narrative reports and the parent conferences in which student projects and progress are shared and discussed). This lack of constant grading creates a school where there are no "C or D students" who have given up on caring and trying, where there is no established hierarchy of "smart kids" and "dumb kids", and where students and teachers are concerned with the quality of work rather than letter grades. Student projects are never graded: the wonderful sense of shared group success and achievement would be deflated and soured by rewarding some students and discouraging others. This does not mean there is a lack of assessment of project work students receive copious feedback at all points during the creation of the project from teachers and from peers, and they are well aware of their project's strengths and weaknesses. It does mean that even the least talented of students, having done a personally exemplary job, can feel pride in the whole class presentation of successful work, rather than feel shame in receiving a poor grade.

Some critics of giving formal letter grades contend that they work fine to motivate "A students", who get all the positive reinforcement, but persuade "C or D students" that their ability is small and its a waste of time to try too hard. I would go further I think they are destructive even for "A students". In these students, they encourage a narrow-minded pursuit of conservative and proven strategies to please. Imagine if we, as adults, were given letter grades on all of the functions we undertake in our jobs. Think of how tense and defensive this would make us, and how quickly we would adjust our behavior to perform h constricted, uncreative patterns which would protect against bad grades. Finally, giving grades to the class, particularly on the "fair" system of a curve, gives an unequivocal message, and in my view an insane one, that the worse your classmates do, the better for you.

Some teachers give a lot of tests. I do not. Except in math, they are a relatively minor part of assessment for me. I give tests occasionally, but with a different purpose: I think the skills of studying for tests and taking tests are important skills for students to learn and practice. I present tests to students in exactly this way: that test preparation and test-taking are important skills, and that we'll all work together as a group to get better at them. I allow students to take the same test, or a clone, over and over again until they feel they have succeeded. I share every test-taking tip I know, and encourage students to work together, tutor each other, share strategies. We celebrate anyone's growth on tests, and our collective growth as a class. Testing skills are not presented as equivalent to talent or personal worth, simply as another important skill.

Within the classroom most assessment takes the form of conferences and critique, formally, and equally importantly, informally, almost unconsciously, throughout the day. Assessment is most often a process of shepherding growth, rather than deriving a final grade or level. It is the transition from formal critique to ongoing informal critique which signifies to me the real adoption of this culture. Initially, critique is presented and modeled in whole class sessions. Students, and I, bring early drafts of work and share them with the group for appraisal. The person sharing his or her work begins by explaining what he or she is trying to achieve with the piece, and students offer opinions of what in the piece seems to be succeeding in this intent, and what may be detracting. This structure means that the comments are not in the form of "it's good" (understood as "you're good"), or "it's bad" (you're bad), but rather, "it's working for what you want in these ways, but not in these ways."

A goal is to involve students in a method of critique which is precise and constructive, unlike the all-too-common type of classroom critique which is limited to variations of "I like your story; it's good". A metaphor I use when describing critique to students is that it is like surgery: opening up a piece, taking it apart, to discover what is working and what it is not. The surgical tools we have are words; the more deep and precise our vocabulary in the field, the more precise we can be at seeing and understanding the piece we are analyzing. If our vocabulary is limited to "good" and "bad", our surgical kit has only one tool; it's like trying to do surgery with a cleaver-- you can't see or separate much of anything. If critique of a story entails talk of dialogue, setting, scene description, plot tension, foreshadowing, irony, character development, symbolism, metaphor, humor, and other components of fiction, there is a possibility that the workings of this story can be revealed, understood, improved. Critique of a science experiment is severely limited if students can't speak in terms of hypothesis, methods, control, variables, data, observation, validity of results, significance of results. These are more than words, they are concepts; they are lenses which allow us to see the work.

The vocabulary which forms the basis of critique sessions is basically the working vocabulary of practitioners in that field. For this reason, I like to have "experts", professionals or craftspeople in a field, visit the class and teach us this vocabulary. In some fields I may have a good grasp of much of the vocabulary, in others I am as ignorant as the students. Either way, expert visitors allow students and I to learn together. Two years ago my school hosted a professional puppeteer and a muralist as part of an arts festival, and my class and I were delighted to learn from them a whole new working vocabulary relevant to their specialties which we used in designing and crafting our own puppets and murals. We had similar experiences with other visitors: a landform geologist, an Egyptologist, a graphic artist, a children's book author, and a university women's soccer team. To highlight one example, when students began to model the language of the women soccer players and the strategies they defined, both the style of play in student games and the level of post-game analysis changed dramatically. Students now had precise terms to describe particular passes, defenses, shots, movement, and they reveled in this new vocabulary on the field, shouting directions and ideas while playing, even seeing options which before wouldn't have occurred to them.

Just as important as formal critique sessions are spontaneous ones. Quite often the class just jumps into an analysis of something at a student's or teacher's impetus and ignores other work for a moment. It may be an informal critique of the cover of a book we've just gotten, a school assembly we just attended, a political event, a television show, a recess soccer game. At first some students view this as a "trick" which succeeds in distracting me, as teacher, from "real work". They soon come to see that I am not distracted at all: that I value this critique as real work and am often pleased to take a short break to attend to it. Because it's clear I'm serious about it, students take it seriously. Perhaps serious is not the best descriptor, as these sessions are fun and animated, but they are as much a part of the classroom as "real work".

The most important assessment of all takes place on a smaller and even more informal level. When educators talk of assessment, they generally think in terms of documented assessment systems. A whole different level of assessment takes place in the individual student, who is constantly assessing his or her own work, deciding what is right and wrong, what fits and what does not, what is a "good enough" job. This self appraisal is the ultimate locus of all standards.

Just beyond this level is the assessment of peers. Recently some schools have begun to use formal modes of peer assessment, either in peer conferences or group critiques, but most peer assessment is not a formal process at all. It takes place on a deeper level, one which isn't usually articulated. Students look around them as they work, watch the quality of what their friends turn in, what others can "get away with" for standards, what is displayed, what is praised or valued in the peer group. In this way they determine what is appropriate and acceptable behavior and work. Quite often students in traditional classrooms consciously lower their standards to blend in more comfortably with peer notions of proper behavior or attitude for a boy or girl their age.

Infusing these two informal levels of assessment with a commitment to high standards is the ultimate goal of all the larger, formal structures in the class. When high standards reach into those levels, then I know the culture has taken hold. In practice, it means that as the year goes on there is less and less need for planned, formal critique, because it is ongoing throughout the day among students. Students work on projects at tables or desks, and constantly seek help, advice, criticism from each other, and are not shy to give it. A student walking by a table where a peer is working on a project will often stop to analyze the piece, ask questions about choices made, compliment strengths, and give opinions and advice concerning what they feel is "working" in the piece.

Student analysis of personal or peer work can get quite technical and obsessive; I welcome this. Outside of school, students often engage in long-term interests which they pursue passionately: collecting baseball cards, practicing video games, arranging doll houses, building models, structuring fantasy play with dolls, action figures, or other toys. These are often ongoing projects which are obsessive and technical in detail and care. It is this type of intensity which I try to harness and draw into the classroom through project work. The excitement and precision they bring to building and critiquing projects is almost identical to that which they put into making miniature doll house furniture at home, or arranging their baseball cards in sets of notebooks and making elaborate inventory and price lists. The intensity and focus of peer discussion and appraisal of work in the classroom is what fuels the quality of this work, and what defines the culture of standards. In this environment, students often turn to each other, rather than the teacher, for feedback, assistance, suggestions; the explicit locus of assessment and approval shifts away from the teacher and toward peers.

These days I carry around a portfolio of student projects: science projects, math projects, literature projects, videotapes of plays, and primarily projects which cross many disciplines and can't be easily placed in any one. When I start to feel that my descriptions of this approach to learning are mostly a bunch of hot air, a hype, another new gimmick in the age-old, and rarely improved, business of teaching, I have something real and tangible to renew my faith, to share with others. These projects and the accomplishments they represent for students are evidence for me that many aspects of the "good old days" can be substantially improved upon.

Student work in my classroom is like nothing I did when I was a child in public school. Even in high school, I was rarely allowed the opportunity to design and direct an important long-range project. Almost nothing I created during thirteen years of schooling was an artifact which I treasured, which I kept and admired over the years. In contrast, the work I carry around today is on loan from students: many students were unwilling to part with their projects, even for a year, so I could use them in workshops; those who did were sometimes nervous to do so. Two students have contacted me this year to confirm that their projects were still all right, and one asked to borrow his back for a presentation in his science class. As a child, I was a student whom teachers would have categorized as highly motivated and perfectionist, yet little I created had lasting value for me. Few school experiences had the emotional involvement which projects, performances, presentations, and trips do for my students today. And I was an example of classroom success, a model student, while Jimmy Passafaro and the rest of the back row had been given up as lost causes since second grade.

My teachers in elementary school often instructed us to try to do your best". This isn't a bad motto; I'd use it with my class today, and most schools would embrace it without a thought. There's a big step between teachers saying this to students, and students actually doing it. Not too many schools seriously look at what aspects of their structure and culture support and compel students to do their best, to act their best, and what aspects undermine this spirit. Rather than searching for individual teachers or principals who they hope can demand high standards, I feel that schools should be looking at how they can create a spirit of high standards, a school culture of high standards.

 Copyright © 1997 CABC
Center for Arts in the Basic Curriculum

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