The Bulletin Board Paradox

11/11/2009
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Some teachers look at a blank bulletin board and imagine a dazzling educational display. They revel in cutting, pasting, crimping and primping; glory in getting everything placed-just-so, and otherwise happily go about making eye-catching, colorful, creative and highly attractive displays.

I am not one of them.

I, the oldest of four children of a writer and an artist, seem to have gotten just the former’s set of talent genes, and not many of them at that.

I’m so non-artistic that when I was a student teacher in a second grade classroom, my host teacher forbade me using scissors lest some child copy my technique.

I can’t draw a straight line even with a ruler.

I have done exactly one good bulletin board in my five-plus years of teaching. It occurred in my third year for what was then and remains my best extended bit of teaching: The Pizza Project. Even then my students actually hung most of the display.

When it comes to creating bulletin boards I am a conscientious objector.

But no matter how conscientious I am about objecting I am still expected to produce them, a situation that leads to one of the most ridiculous teaching practices I know of: creating assignments solely for the purpose of having something to hang on a bulletin board.

I am teaching my students to use a Ning; to create Wordles, to podcast and to develop stunning multi-media presentations by exercising those vaunted 21st Century skills using 21st Century tools.

Its good for them and it is far easier for me to demonstrate those sorts of things than it is for me to hang papers neatly.

But hang I must.

The school hallways are lined with bulletin boards and they cannot be left empty. After all, they provide the evidence that students are doing something besides enduring rolling waves of diagnostic, predictive, practice and other versions of standardized exams.

It is a frustrating paradox.

Everyone wants students to learn new skills but, because my and many other schools are not set-up for demonstrating and displaying learning using those skills, we continue to have students practice the same kinds of skills used to produce billboards in the 18th Century

I know I teach history, but…

Meanwhile, the billionaire Mayor who runs our schools seems to have given up on my students and others like them.

There’s no money to buy bookcases so I can display the books in my sole-purpose reading classroom, but there is money to lobby for and open new charter schools.

For the past three months there’s been a brand new exterior display sign leaning upside-down against the wall outside our main entrance. There was money to buy that, but none to put it up.

Some schools get document cameras, GPS units, video editing programs and the cameras to feed them material, but I have to buy my own backing paper for those damned bulletin boards.

My students are capable of creating documentaries but I might as well assign dioramas.

A couple of decades ago the United Negro College Fund ran ads with the message that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

It still is.

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