In praise of data

Just as our language might be appropriated by the corporate education deform movement, so we might reappropriate our language. This essay critically examines what we mean when we use the phrase “teacher effectiveness.” Part 3 of 3.

I write out of love, resisting fear. I write out of fear’s opposite, love, the only possible antidote to fear. I write out of memory, remembering the process of getting to know my students, remembering learning to set expectations for them, learning to speak directly but never unkindly, establishing safety in a classroom where learning is always a risky business.

After defining the terms and defining their opposites, third, risk wandering across the ribbon of teaching and learning into the unknown, unknowable, getting to know. I write out of memory; I do not remember that drawing student ever again arriving late for class.

The spring of 2007 is etched into my memory. Midway through that semester, news reports of the campus shootings at Virginia Tech broke out just as I was arriving at my own campus for another day of teaching and learning. I sat through an afternoon lecture on Dada, admiring the art historian’s ability to teach, to retain his composure, showing no sign of fear, teaching on the frontlines of our war culture without a flak jacket and with no weapons other than words. I write lacking that composure, decomposing, rearranging the composition.

I write out of love, resisting fear, daring to speak as I dared to speak the fear aloud during that evening’s drawing session.

Until then, my greatest challenge in teaching had been persuading a largely apathetic and narcissistic audience, the first generation of college students to grow up through No Child Left Behind legislation, to actively engage in their learning.

Technology had entered the classroom, from the point of view of the teaching assistant at the back of many a darkened auditorium, where the students were busily engaged in visiting each other’s Facebook pages, surfing for pornography, or texting their mothers rather than paying attention to their learning. The most frequent and oftentimes only question in response to lectures that I found deeply interesting and engaging was uttered with a bored yawn, “Is this gunna be on the test?”

There was the foot-stamper, whose parents had taught her that she could get anything she wanted by whining rather than working for it, “But I wannan A!”

There was the furniture-kicker, expressing his frustration with drawing as a prerequisite for students majoring in fields as diverse as architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, virtual technology design, graphic design, and fine art.

There was the student with a dual major in elementary education, who threatened me with physical violence during a meeting that I requested after he stomped out of my classroom declaring that my writing assignment was “stupid,” challenging as it was to his notion that college writing should consist of five short paragraphs expressing his personal opinions, unsupported by the literature of art history or theory, “If I had stormed out of your classroom, you would know about it. You would be on your knees begging me to let you go.”

Resisting fear, I write out of love.

That spring, I shifted the focus of a collaborative drawing assignment from the product of drawing to the process of collaborating, getting to know by first, naming the problem; second, naming its opposite; and third, crossing those barriers of fear and despair to hope and love by speaking our personal narratives through the practice of drawing. Beneath the superficial apathy, I quickly learned the depth of this generation’s fears and hopes for our shared world. Far from yawning boredom, they became actively engaged in our classroom discussions, those conversations continuing from my classroom into their other classes, and sometimes returning to me via email, my role as teacher shifting to mediator of their conversations. Learning to listen. Paying attention. Getting to know.

My student who started the semester barely showing up to class became the first to volunteer as our brainstorming sessions shifted to drawing, moving in unison with two other students as the three of them together drew a collaborative line, interconnected, intersecting, interwoven. On the last day of classes, we gathered for our final critique, the equivalent of a final exam in a studio course. After class, although the semester was over, the sun was shining, and they were free to go, the students lingered, asking for more stories from my own learning experiences, remembering my teachers.

And when I returned to campus the following fall, my drawing student greeted me from across the quad, “Guess what? I’ve changed my major to art education.”

Based on my experiences, I write urgently, out of love for my country, love of the world, in love resisting fear’s silence, urging that we reconsider the measure of the question of teacher effectiveness by measuring instead the state of the world, measure twice before cutting, creating a reciprocating system of analysis and evaluation based not on data collection, but on written self-reflection and -awareness as we shift along the communicative ribbon of teaching and learning.

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