Cassandra Seltzer • The Harriton Banner • May, 2013

I went back to middle school. On purpose. Not just any middle school, but the very halls in which I lived out my sixth-to-eighth grade career. And what did I do? Observe other, smaller, people live out their sixth-to-eighth grade careers. I followed my former art teacher (now the ‘gifted’ teacher for seventh graders) around, migrating from class to class on a mission. The man formerly known as “art teacher Todd Marrone” has a proposal: revamp the state of classroom education to motivate kids to care about their learning. Tall order.

Marrone writes of an alternative plan for student motivation, saying, “If an individual is not interested, invested and/or personally accountable for achieving a goal, he or she will only move forward under the immediate supervision and intimidation/encouragement of someone who is. [This] model is an inefficient use of resources, shortsighted and unauthentic. The moment the supervisor is removed from the equation, the motivation dissipates.” Ironically, he brought me in as a kind of “supervisor” to observe his teaching, to take notes and realize possible alternatives.

I watched two classes of note. The first began with Marrone talking about eighteenth-century boats. It ended with a crowd of seventh graders singing Fleetwood Mac under their breath and discussing the logistics of parallel universes. Kids these days, eh? What happened in between is inessential – the moral of this story is that it made kids think. Too often we see rote memorization of facts lost with the conclusion of a test on the subject, but real cohesive thought isn’t a number or a name fading with time.

He let me teach a class – should I be admitting that? It doesn’t feel kosher. But I digress. It started in the same place (boats) and followed similar thematic lines, but concluded with a discussion of the ethics of cloning and the definition of personhood. Let me reiterate that these are seventh graders. Thirteen-year-olds. All of whom are capable of real intensive thought and are perfectly able to direct their own discussions and go beyond the aggregation of facts. Granted, they were seventh graders at a middle school in the Main Line, most of whom having grown up with two college-or-higher-educated parents and few (if any) financial issues. I can’t propose this system for every school – the Philadelphia public school system would benefit greatly, but is currently a complete mess and has too many current issues to overcome. Theoretically, the students should come first, but its current state sadly would not allow for these kinds of lessons.

“These kinds of lessons” just described were lecture-based ones, with a teacher standing in front of the class guiding a discussion. They’re not even at the heart of Marrone’s proposal. He wants a program in which “the students will assume the responsibility and accountability of their own, and the group’s, success by owning the authentic consequences of their choices and actions (or inaction).” An example: we moved to a classroom where, as promised, the kids would “teach themselves things we [teachers] never could.” The class was given notecards and scissors. We said, “Build something tall.” They built. They tried teams and individual work, stacking and folding and notching cards. One boy took the candy we promised vaguely as a ‘reward’ and hid it in his pockets, then confessed and gave it out to his classmates. He kept it no secret though; this boy openly let his teacher know that he had taken it from the table, seeking praise for his ingenuity, then sat at the table and offered advice on building. Occasionally the students would quiet each other, effectively monitoring their own behavior.

When they’d finished, Mr. Marrone had a list of the things he’d noticed in their work: diplomacy, politics, creativity, collaboration, leadership, negotiation, engineering, visual/spatial design, compromise, competition, etc. There were 23 items. How long would it have taken a teacher to enforce all of these? One child said “five hours,” another, “three years,” and another claimed that there was no lesson learned – only examples. This is the kind of thought we are looking for. Children should be examining their classroom activities and participating actively, so as to make a better environment for all involved. Why not include students in their own learning processes? Reconsider standardized testing. As Marrone wrote on his site, “Success isn’t a letter on a piece of paper, success is deciding on mutually beneficial solutions to problems and achieving authentic goals.”

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