Lloyd Dobler and the Art of Teaching with a Camera

LloydI remember the exact moment when it occurred to me that moving pictures could tell stories with such power and precision that words weren’t always necessary. I have to credit late director Cameron Crowe for putting that boom box in Loyd Dobbler’s hands as he stood below his true love’s window in that iconic scene from the 1980s. I remember thinking how nothing that character could have said would have better expressed what we the audience knew was in his wounded heart. It would be decades later before I would pick up a camera myself and attempt to tell a story, but the impression was deep and lasting.

Today’s adoloscents came out of the womb watching Youtube videos, playing with interactive video games, and using complex programs to create animation, alter photographs and record hip-hop beats. But to throw the blanket term of “visual learner” upon them is to assume too much about how much they’re actually learning and what the visual component has to do with it. What I value most about teaching kids how to make movies or record music is the thought process that happens before any of them ever touch a camera or plug in a microphone. This process has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with leading them to discovering the story they want to tell, the idea they want to convey, and the experience of living that they wish to share.

What video and audio technology offers us is a way to engage our students in the less flashy “thinking part” of creation by dangling the alluring product before them. Kids know a good movie or a tight hook when they see or hear one. What they’re less sure of is how that movie got so good or why that lyric is so effective. By guiding them step by step through a process of conceptualization, visualization, graphic organization, planning and execution, they come to an understanding of how quality “happens.” The best part is that this understanding transfers to essay writing, algebric processes, chemistry experiments, and the analysis of political policy.

Perhaps more importantly, video and music production allow for the transfer from exterally perceived reality to internalized understanding and back to an external expression more fluidly and more concretely than almost any other medium. To “see the movie in your head,” as I suggest to students, and then make real what you see, is the most fundamental process of learning and doing. Along the way, kids encounter every conceivable obstacle in finding the right answer, but I have yet to see a student from any demographic throw up their hands and quit because it’s too hard. They nearly always dig deep into their own natural resources and find a workable solution that often surprises even me. And the reason for this is that they want to produce quality work and they have a million models of what that work should look or sound like.

IMG_0398Not every kid I teach is going to being a future filmmaker or record producer. Some will likely never make another movie or write another song again. But I’m fairly certain that the experience of “making” and the pleasure of “creating” will follow them out of my class and into the next one they enter. And all of the core skills – writing, reading for comprehension, drawing, measuring, calculating, budgeting, collaborating, trying, failing, and trying again – have been used for all the most authentic purposes imaginable. And while there may be no State Standards test for creativty (yet), I like to imagine that these kids would ace it every single time.

The Precarious Position of the Public School Teacher

Here’s a fact: In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a compulsory education law, requiring that every child be enrolled in school.  By 1918, every state had such a law, making public schools and public school teachers very necessary.

Here’s another: The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was first administered in 1926. It was designed to assess college preparedness in high school students, but was based largely on the Army Alpha and Beta Intelligence Test, which measured basic intelligence in military recruits during World War I.

Now here’s an opinion:

Public School teachers in America, and particularly here in my own state of Virginia, have recently been placed in the most precarious of positions. On the one hand, everyone seems to agrees that teachers are essential to the development of both the individual and the society; that the continued strength of our democracy depends on an educated populace; and that teaching is among the most “noble professions” on earth. On the other hand, evidence indicates that teachers are no longer trusted to define or determine what “education” looks like. From the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2005 to our current President’s “Race to the Top” initiative, politicians and school administrators have taken more and more control and autonomy from teachers in the classroom and replaced it with prescriptive notions of what children really need to be considered “highly educated.” The end result, naturally, is a watered down curriculum being administered by disempowered teachers to disconnected children and a downward spiral that all the well-intended tinkering of punitive laws and higher expectations cannot fix.  In a nutshell, both public school teachers and students have come to realize that they are little more than statistical notions for people who make a great living from creating statistical notions.  No one below the level of division administration has any real power and therefore, no one is truly invested and no one is really learning anything. To paraphrase most of our disconnected and disillusioned students, “this sucks.”

Over the past ten years teachers have been repeatedly told that they are now accountable for their student’s progress, as if they weren’t accountable all along.  Was there ever a time in our history when teachers weren’t held responsible for the success and failures of their students? If so, how did America become the standard barer for public education in the early 20th Century, the model from which every modernizing nation took note?  Was it an accident? The very suggestion that our education system is lagging as a result of teachers not being held accountable was enough of an insult to send the first wave of good teachers into the private sector. The ensuing efforts to compile skewed data to support that heinous allegation is driving away many others. The ones who have stayed do so simply because they still believe they can make a difference and that eventually this onslaught against the integrity of those who choose to teach will end. I hope that some day their optimism is rewarded.

Being a public school teacher over the past decade or so has become something like being on the popular reality show, “Survivor.” On that show, individuals are placed in hostile and unfamiliar environments, given tasks of increasing difficulty, and, when unable to complete them, are voted out of the game by the other contestants.  The game in the classroom goes something like this:

“Welcome, contestants. Here’s a room full of kids from disparate backgrounds, some are highly literate and well-adjusted, some come to us already stunted in their development through circumstances beyond our control.  Your task is to prepare all of them for a productive and satisfying life, developing their skills to make them good citizens, patriotic consumers, and informed participants in democracy. But wait, there’s a catch! All of your students must pass this battery of tests compiled by our producers, or YOU lose.  Wait, there’s more. The tests cover every subject, span four thousand years of human history, include specific factual content as well as skills, and are subject to revision EVERY YEAR.  The stakes are high, the pressures enormous. But if you succeed, you get to keep your job.”

Amazingly, the vast majority of teachers succeed.  Every year.  Pass rates of 90% or higher are not uncommon for schools in the county where I live.  Yeah us! We get to keep teaching. And the reward for our great work is astonishing.  Last year, teachers in Albemarle County were granted larger class sizes, more time teaching with less time for planning, cuts in stipends for extra-curricular coaching and sponsorship, another year of suspended pay raises, and a brand new schedule for high school teachers that a good bulk of research suggests make teaching and learning more difficult. On to the next round of our game.

Here’s one last fact mixed with an opinion:

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2005 was crafted as a revision of 1965’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This earlier legislation was passed as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” securing Federal funding for poverty stricken districts and minority students. ESEA lead to programs like Title 1 and the movement toward bilingual education.  What we in public education have been working against since 2005 is the systematic un-doing of that progressive movement in education.  While on its theoretical surface NCLB is an effort to promote equal access to education for all Americans, it is in practice a wedge between those who take up the work of public education and those who are still unwilling to pay for it.  By creating a complex and costly structure that paints teachers as the reason for our failure, it undermines the nobility of the profession. By creating a uniform vision of what education looks like, it guarantees that some will be deemed unsuccessful and justifies the vilification of teachers. And the most damaging aspect is that it objectifies the very children that we seek to further humanize, making them a product of some meat grinder that churns out diplomas and consumers. It’s shameful and sad and a death knell to true and meaningful education.

In Conclusion:

The problem is complex, but the solution seems quite simple.  Local administrators of public education need to shake off the shackles of federally mandated benchmarks and requirements.  The cost does not justify the reward. We have to find a way to redirect the energy and money spent on administering this ridiculous battery of arbitrary tests and fighting the negative consequences of submitting to this game. We need instead to spend these resources developing and retaining teachers who are innovative, compassionate, highly trained and accountable to their communities rather than to Washington accountants. If we did, we’d change the environment, the rules of the game, the culture, and most likely the end product for all of our kids and all of our teachers.  That would take some real audacity, audacity of the type that not even President Obama possesses, and nobody so far has proved to have that kind of courage. Until someone does, we’ll continue to watch our best teachers either leave or stay and be handcuffed.  We’ll see no real progress in our public schools and higher and higher enrollments in private schools by the dwindling number of families who can afford them.  If I were cynical, I might add that perhaps that is the end goal.  Yeah us. We win.