The Struggle With Staying Inside The Lines

Yesterday an article titled "Why Adults are Buying Colong Books (for Themselves)" by Adrienne Raphel in the New Yorker examined the phenomena of adults diving back into the coloring book market.  I am one of the many who are coloring for pleasure.  My first purchases were from Amazon,  My favorite: Adult Coloring Book: Stress Relieving Patterns  as well as a mandala coloring book (which I don't like as much) and one marketed for "stress-relief". They are time consuming and require focus, the idea being that you turn everything else off: no phone, TV, kids, spouses.  Just you and your coloring to zone out and see where the time takes you.  Unfortunately, my brain is not one that works that way and I like to do multiple things at once- usually one taking the majority of my focus (a gift and a curse) not unlike many of our students.  So in the evening, after dinner when we are catching up on the backlogged DVR, I color while we watch Mr. Robot.

Last Friday I was visiting a friend from grad school and fellow teacher upstate in Beacon, about 90 minutes north of NYC.  We stopped into one of the local shops on the main drag through town and I spent a few minutes looking at the books on the table and I saw this: Johanna Basford's Secret Garden that has now sold 2 million copies world wide. The shop owner told me the publisher reserves most of the copies for Amazon so it is difficult for the little guys to get stock in.  She went on to tell me she always sells out. I spent the extra few dollars to support my local independent bookseller and left with my new treasure.

On the train home from my visit I was thinking about what it would look like to have coloring books in my classroom. What would it offer my 11th grade AP students?  Plenty is the answer.

I had a A-ha! moment this spring. After spending more hours than I would care to mention here reading and writing feedback to students on papers they submitted I was looking in to see who had accessed the feedback and very few students had gone back in to see the comments.  It was frustrating for me on a couple of fronts.  1. Students are not looking at the feedback they are getting which means 2. They are not using the feedback to improve their work. (From me or a peer for that matter.) On some level I already knew this.  For some reason though, this time, the stakes felt higher.  This is Advanced Placement.  This is getting you ready to sit in a college classroom.  How do I do a better job of supporting my students with developing their own methods of critical reflection to support their own growth and learning? I suspected it had to do with grades but I wanted to hear from the kids.

One morning, thanks to yet another compulsory fire drill at our school, my class returned 60 minutes into our 80 minute period and because it was a wash, I decided to hear what they had to say about about it.  It was exactly what I expected. They are simply working for the next grade.  They see the number or letter on the paper or in the online grade book and that is enough for them.  If they did well, GREAT! (It helps my class average) and if they did poorly, it's Oh well, next time. (Crap, my parents are going to be pissed!)  We went on to have a longer conversation about what it would mean for them to not have to work towards a grade.  There were some great responses- challenging my thinking about what MBA can look like in my class room next year.

My school has already began to move towards Mastery Based Learning in this past school year. The more thinking I did about what was not working with feedback the clearer it became that I was going at this the wrong way.  I read Mark D. Barns' Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning and I was sold. I began following out the #TTOG on Twitter and looking more into schools using MBA.

These are my new questions: 

  • When students relax, will they learn better/more/etc.?
  • By removing the pressures of grades will the agency shift from teacher to student as the onus is put on them to master skills and ideas?
  • What supports can I bring into the classroom to support students with building learning capacity?  
  • Can multitasking in different ways- like coloring-help students do this?

Today, when I posted the New Yorker article on Facebook my former boss and brilliant theatrical milliner, Lynne Mackey posted,"But then you feel you need to stay w/in the lines.  How about a big page of blank paper.  No lines. No rules."  This is the comment that began this entire string of thinking today.  Throwing out grades is going to be like having a blank page of paper for my students.  Grades have become a crutch and my greatest goal has always been to model what passion for learning and thinking looks like and that my students go on to do that work on their own.

In February of 2006 I wrote to my high school English teacher, Tom Williams to tell him I was applying to grad programs to teach.  In an early exchange he said this to me: 

"...if you think you have to get students to think, you'll be putting more pressure on yourself than you'll ever be able to handle effectively.  Better to ask students to make meaning and the only way I know how to do that is to listen, and make meanings myself.  It's ok to share your meanings, but not necessary, or even generally appropriate.  Remember, the real subject in any classroom is each student. Learn them, and the rest becomes merely problematic, not impossible."

I come back to this periodically, a mantra.  I need to keep "learning kids" to support them with coloring inside or outside the lines.  I grow, they grow.  Needless to say, there will be coloring in AP Language and Composition next year.


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