Monday, June 17, 2013

"I Can," But I Won't

There's a scene in the The Shawshank Redemption when Brooks has been let out of prison after fifty years and is out in the world, staying at a halfway house, working a job, but scared all the time. He says, "I guess I'm too old for that sort of nonsense any more. I don't like it here. I'm tired of being afraid all the time. I've decided not to stay."

I thought of that as I took things off the classroom walls this morning. Kids are done and it's just teachers in the building so we're cleaning and getting ready for next year. Some of my posters and quotation are old and yellowing, but those weren't troubling me. It was the "I can" statements that got me thinking of old Brooksy.

My school system this year decided to require "I can" statements in every lesson plan. Teachers were to put those statements on the board for kids to see what they were supposed to learn that period. It's a new-fangled way of writing objectives. Twenty years ago I was taught to write "At the end of this lesson students will be able to..." Now, my admins want "I can..."

I'm trying to be a good boy so I did "I cans" for a few weeks, writing them on big file cards I taped to the wall after the lesson. I wanted to show that I was following the rules, but I couldn't keep it up. I left the cards on the wall in case any admins come looking to check off their lists.

Brooks says he's too old for that sort of nonsense any more. Me too. I've been at this for eighteen years and though like every teacher I'm still learning, I know how to do the job well. I think deeply about learning and because of that I can say this: "I can" statements are bullshit.

So I'm not going to do them anymore. I'm tired of being afraid all the time of the administrative checklists that substitute for thoughtful consideration of my teaching. I've decided not to stay in the process of nonsense. I tore down the file cards and threw away the idea of the "I can" statement.

Teaching and learning are more complicated than the simple statements of what someone will be able to do at the end of an hour's lesson. I wouldn't mind writing a statement of what I'm trying to achieve throughout the year. It would sound something like this:

By the end of the year, if the students attend school and attend to what we do,  they will be better able to read, write, speak, listen, and think in words. They will have practiced the tricks of test taking. They will know several new stories and poems, they will have written a bunch of words, and they will know better how to be a person in this world. 

I like that. It's appropriately vague for a process that is too complicated and qualitative to be reduced to a data set. It's also truthful about the primary goal in schools today: to increase test scores. 

I'm not starting any rebellion. I'm too old for that. I'm just closing my door and helping kids learn as best we can.. When the administrators ask where the "I can" statements are, I'll say whatever makes them feel better and then get back to helping kids read and write on.