BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ADAM GEBHARDT
My 8th grade class filed into the multipurpose room to sit at the lunch tables for art class where everyone would be working on perspective drawings, except for me. I had a separate table where, for the past few weeks, I had been carefully working on an acrylic painting of two blue jays. Mrs. Nalepa had recognized my interest and talent in art and offered me the opportunity to take a different creative approach to her class with self-guided projects while the rest of my classmates completed the prescribed assignments. After hours of painstaking work, I carefully shuttled the painting home where my parents proudly displayed it for years.
Taking a break from the oil painting in my small studio space with a window overlooking the Tiber river in Rome, I turned around to make a sincere proposal to my painting professor. She had recently laid out the curriculum requiring a finished painting to be turned in each week of the semester. Knowing that my style of painting, which tended to be realistic, would not allow for such a pace, I respectfully asked if I could complete a painting every three weeks with in-progress critiques completed weekly. At the end of the semester, I disappointedly rolled up a dozen unfinished canvases which remain incomplete to this day.
Class after class pours in and out of the art room with barely enough time to transition activities and plan for the next lesson or project. The pace of the curriculum, need for measurable grades, and pressure of presenting a high quality end of the year art show drives the classes onward toward another summer break, yet it is only September. Now that the roles are reversed, I, the teacher, am in the driver’s seat, but I have to stop and wonder if I should be. Who, or what, should drive learning in my classroom? Will I follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Nalepa or my college professor?
This dilemma confronts every teacher as we, the gatekeepers of our students’ education, make daily choices that either permit creative freedom and inspire intrinsic curiosity or conform students to a standard benchmark with rigid learning goals. More than ever, culture and society demand the former from students in the real world while standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and school assessments foster the latter in the educational environment.
Certainly, there is validity in regulated testing and achievement goals, but these should not erase the flexibility of teachers to merge student creativity and interests with quantitatively measured learning progress. Creativity, inspiration, engagement, excitement, interest, passion, and fascination have no numerical score, but they are what fuels intrinsic, life-long learning.
As a student, I experienced the joy of being given the freedom to explore my creative interests as well as the frustration from being denied the same liberty. As a teacher, cognizant of the effect that these experiences had on my education, I have the power to similarly affect my students with my decisions. I hope that I will have the courage to let go of control, refuse to let learning be conformed to predetermined standards, and let my creative, unique students take the wheel.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee