What does teaching look like?  I’m sure right now you have images of classrooms, desks, whiteboards, or perhaps even chalkboards scrolling through your head.  Teaching is all of these things, of course, but it’s also a lot more.

One of my teaching goals for 2013 was to photograph scenes from my classroom.  The idea is inspired in part by my curiosity to see what MY teaching looks like, but also in part because teaching has changed so much over the past 10-15 years.  This morning I looked back through my photo albums and selected a few scenes from the past year.  I approached this without any set criteria, but it’s clear that some of my photographs were selected for reasons of pedagogy, others for aesthetic reasons, and some because they represent an insight into my thinking about this vocation that I hold close to my heart.  I’m excited to share this first “scene” from my classroom with you and others in the coming weeks.

Inside the Pantheon in Rome.

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I love teaching AP European History because the curriculum is so rich, essential, and engaging.  I want to bring my students as close to the history as possible, so during our spring break each year my teaching colleague and I offer a nine/ten day trip to various destinations in Europe.  One leg of our trip last spring took us to Rome.   I chose this photograph from inside the Pantheon because in many ways the history of this ancient structure parallels what’s going on with education reform today.

The Pantheon with its domed roof was built in 126 A.D. A few hundred years later, Europe entered the medieval period, sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages, when progress seemed to stop and the lessons from the past were lost.  It wasn’t until the late-14th and early-15th centuries that Europe emerged from this period and experienced a Renaissance, or “rebirth,” of learning.  One example of this renewal is seen in Brunelleschi’s dome of the basilica in Florence, Italy, which was inspired by the Pantheon.

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The Basilica de Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, otherwise known as il Duomo, sat for many years unfinished because the knowledge of how to build a dome to complete the structure had been lost, or at least not understood.  The ruling oligarchs of the city challenged aspiring architects through a competition to come up with a design for the project and the winner would be awarded the commission to build the dome.  Architect Filippo Brunelleschi traveled to Rome to study the Pantheon, and more specifically, its domed ceiling, before submitting his design to the competition committee.  The ancient structure inspired his ideas for the dome and he was awarded the commission.  The result of this “rebirth” produced one of the most beautiful structures in the world and kick-started the Italian Renaissance.  {If you’re interested in learning more about this story, I encourage you to read Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King.}

103American education today may be experiencing it’s own Dark Ages.  A period where politicians, entrepreneurs, special interest groups, some school administrators, and others who are NOT in the classroom have legislated, tested, and layered bureaucratic controls over what happens in the classroom under the guise of “reform.”  This top-down movement uses standards and testing as a hammer in an attempt to pound the learning into the minds of our students.  Trouble is, our students aren’t widgets and there’s nothing about our children that is “standard.”

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The autonomy that teachers once experienced and enjoyed in the classroom is disappearing and the number of students in every classroom is increasing.  With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) by the Bush administration in 2002, the educational ideology of standards, accountability, and high stakes testing became firm national policy.  States were charged with the task of writing standards for various disciplines at every grade level and they must test students’ achievement of those standards annually to ensure “adequate yearly progress.”  The Obama administration rolled out its version of high stakes testing and packaged it as Race to the Top.  States who wanted the federal money had to create standards and test students.

166These are Dark Age policies, which are delivering medieval results.  Indeed, “…these ideas [standards and testing] are highly contested; not one has a strong body of evidence or research to support it or to justify the imposition of so many different and untested changes at the same time.”[1]

During the Renaissance, intellectuals rediscovered the learnings from the classical past and ushered in a new era of growth and prosperity, leaving the Dark Ages behind.  Todays standards and testing movement are Dark Age policies that have not advanced learning in our schools.  In fact, a strong argument can be made that learning has regressed as the curriculum has narrowed to only the tested subjects while shelving other curriculum.

IMG_7009I’m not suggesting that we return to the education policies of the early twentieth century; the world we’re preparing students for now is vastly different from then.  And, I’m not opposed to curricular standards provided the process for creating them involves teachers and higher education researchers with approval from local school boards.  However, instead of politicians and those farthest from the classroom creating policy, we would be better served by investing in teachers and not tests.

An American education Renaissance can only happen if citizens wrestle back control of their schools on behalf of their students.  States and local school districts should be the drivers of this rebirth but only if they listen to the three primary stakeholders – teachers, students, and the community.  Those closest to the classroom are the most invested and motivated drivers of positive reform.

The Pantheon survived the Dark Ages and inspired Brunelleschi and perhaps current education researchers and reformers will convince citizens of our own potential for Renaissance.

 

 


[1] Ravitch, Diane. (2013).  Reign of Error; The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Pg15.