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Subversive Teaching

Why They Turn in Garbage
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Many years ago I read The Quality School and The Quality Teacher, both by William Glasser, when I was teaching young children. Both books transformed my teaching. For the first time I understood that many students simply do not understand the concept of quality work, and without that understanding, they cannot produce it. However, the concept can be directly taught as we teach any other. Students can learn to identify the elements of quality work, to seek constructive feedback on the quality of theirs, and almost without exception, once they have learned to do this, they will produce high quality work. When students are producing quality work, it is a very different experience that producing something sloppy and ill-conceived, an experience that has the power to transform them as learners and human beings. This is an account of some of my earliest experimentation with teaching quality. As you will see, the principles can be applied to any subject at any grade level.

Chris hurriedly colored in the interior of his shoe box with a blue crayon and pasted on the hastily cut paper shark he'd drawn in pencil on notebook paper. "There, I'm finished with my habitat project. Can I have free time?"

Chris was always the first one finished with any assignment, by a wide margin. It never seemed to matter to him that he often failed tests because of his carelessness and had to do other simple assignments over several times before he got them right. Everything he did barely fulfilled the minimum requirements needed to be able to claim that he was finished. Nothing I had said to him all year had caused him to have the slightest interest in trying to do higher quality work (except in writing, which was never graded, and meant too much to all of us to do less than our best.)

But it was almost comical to imagine that Chris actually considered his habitat project finished after maybe fifteen minutes of effort. The whole class understood that this was a major research project which would occupy a major portion of their time in science for a week. Everyone was either immersed in research or had just begun making his habitat collage or model out of various materials brought from home. Some even insisted on staying in at recess to work. Yet Chris thought the fifteen minutes he'd spent on his was sufficient.

I suggested to Chris that he add some more details about the habitat, so he haphazardly added some white paper flying fish, and some paper coral. I reminded him that he needed to write a short report. He scribbled something about the "grat whit" shark in green crayon on the back of a piece of notebook paper.

As a result of reading William Glasser's The Quality School, I had for the last week been asking questions and initiating discussions about the value of learning each of the things we were studying. I had seen a subtle change already simply by giving the children an opportunity several times a day, at the introduction of lessons, to explicitly affirm their commitment to learning and to express their appreciation of its value to them.

In the entire class, only Chris and Jacob claimed they did not in fact come to school to learn, but only because their mothers made them. And because their work was so often poor or mediocre, and because they so often seemed to be determined to sabotage everyone else's attempt to learn, I believed them. But Chris was an enthusiastic and creative writer who willingly revised his work -- and even edited it. And he never actually failed to do his classwork. He simply did it as fast as he could, and never evaluated the quality.

Glasser emphasizes the essentiality of self-evaluation in doing quality work. So I had Chris do a written evaluation of his project, and give himself a grade. It was "Good, a B," he said, because "it has flying fish and coral and looks good."

I decided to make the habitat project an experiment in encouraging every child -- even Chris and Jacob -- to do authentically good, and hopefully excellent, work. I explained to the class that I expected them to evaluate their projects based on certain criteria. They could give themselves an A or a B, but until they were sure they had at least a B, the project was not finished. And they would have to justify their evaluation according to the criteria.

I then asked the class to tell me how they would know when they had a B or an A project -- to describe what each of these would look like. For a B, they mentioned the inclusion of many details revealing extensive research, of good and careful artwork, of clarity, of it looking like it was almost your best work. I wrote these on the board.

For an A, they said that it would have many details, would look really good, would be your best work, would be clear, and -- Kenneth finally said it -- it would take a lot of time.

Time, I said, was the key to quality. I picked up Viet's poster, on which he had painstakingly drawn a mouse. We evaluated this impressive mouse according to the criteria of excellence, and found that it was indeed an example of A quality work. And, Viet informed us, this one mouse had taken him two class periods and one recess to draw. (I resisted the impulse to tell him to work faster.)

After some discussion of the characteristics of poor and mediocre work, I asked the class how they felt after having done each kind of work (yuck to yipee!). Then I asked them to raise their hands if they intended to do a poor project. No one. A mediocre project? No one. A good project? Chris. An excellent project? Everyone else! Go for it, I said, and they got busy.

Except Chris. He still wanted to know if he had free time. I asked him to evaluate his project again in light of what we had discussed. He glanced at it. Yep, he said, still a B. Then I told him, just to make sure, to get some other people to evaluate it and see if they agreed.

"Well, you know," he said, studying his project more carefully , "I think if I painted the background blue over the crayon it would look better." I heartily agreed.

Next he asked to borrow my knife because he had gotten some clay from someone and was making his shark, flying fish, and coral out of it. He came up to me several times to show me what he was working on. It was one of the few times all year that he had, of his own volition, been willing to improve his work, other than his writing.

The next day Chris indicated that he was sure now that his project was finished. Then I showed the class a film about ocean habitats, including coral reefs. Evidently there were quite a few more occupants of coral reefs than sharks and flying fish. Chris, however, declined to add any of these to his habitat model because he wasn't able to get any more clay from anyone, and he rejected my suggestion to use construction paper instead. I asked the class if anyone was willing to lend Chris clay, which he vowed he would pay back when he brought some on Monday. Someone gave him enough for a sea snake.

The next day we again reviewed the characteristics of good and excellent projects which we had listed on the board. Then we all went in the hall and together looked at the various projects and artwork displayed outside classrooms. At each display I asked them to decide which ones looked like they had taken the most time, and there was much consensus about which these were, as well as about which projects looked like they had taken little time.

This was an enlightening exercise. All came away with the conviction that only those who had done excellent work had used their time well.

When we returned to the room, Chris asked for a piece of poster board so he could make a poster to go with his habitat model. He spent the rest of the period busily painting. His project was beginning to take on the characteristics of excellence.


Writing is one area of our curriculum where my students have a well-developed sense of what it takes to produce quality work. This is because writing takes place within the writing workshop context, where writing is never graded, but is constantly brought before the class, and constantly revised. Everyone realizes that good writing takes a huge amount of time, and one project can take many weeks. And they do it, simply because it feels so good to sit before the class and read something that is well crafted, and to earn the respect of one's peers. Poor quality first drafts are understood as merely the seed from which will spring the fully developed plant: the audience first tells what they did like in the draft, then go on to ask a myriad of questions about all those essential details that the author failed ot include. The author must evaluate the questions and decide whether the information is indeed essential to the story. In any case he now possesses many ideas which he can use in improving his work.

Another area in which quality is much pursued in our class is class jobs. In our class everyone begins the year with one job, and by mid- year most people have several of them. These are real tasks, from monitoring the line to managing the library to being a technology troubleshooter to paying salaries. I handle curriculum and instruction, and the children handle almost every other administrative task in the classroom. Children who have invested little effort in schoolwork quite often turn out to be the most capable and responsible workers when given a real job essential to the functioning of the class. This often changes their self-image as well as their approach to schoolwork.

What I have realized is that I am not teaching content so much as I am training children to be quality learners and workers. I have realized that the work is the medium through which the children develop the ability to produce quality work. The learning skills and quest for excellence are the actual curriculum -- the content is learned in the pursuit of these goals. And yet, ironically, the "basic skills" are far more effectively learned than when they are themselves the primary curriculum.

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