Archive for the ‘quality’ Category

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If I Were Queen Of Education, There Would Be Only Two Grades: Cares Or Doesn’t Care

July 1, 2010

There is, in the act of preparing, the moment when you start caring. • Winston Churchill

Whether you are a student or a teacher or an employee or a parent or a partner or any one of thousand other roles that each of us plays daily, you have to care about what you do if you want to produce good work. You have to love your work—not in the sense that every moment of your engagement with whatever it is that you have to do will bring you unbridled joy—but with an acceptance and a level of involvement that acknowledge its importance in your life.

I’m a teacher. I can tell when students hand in done-on-the-bus work, the kind of stuff that’s cobbled together at the last minute with little thought given to its creation. I’ve written about this before. It brings me no joy to receive this kind of work and even less joy to assess it. Sometimes this worth•less work even meets all the requirements and thus, my assessment can’t be too harsh. The work is likely to pass. But it still makes me sad.

I understand that there is meaning•less work distributed in classrooms all over the world. I understand that students don’t see the point of many things that they are asked to do. Sometimes there are assignments that don’t seem to have much of a point, although if you asked the teacher, there may well be a rationale. As a student, I’ve been asked to do some things that I consider hoopjumping, but I’ve also turned many of those hoops into opportunities to expand the possibilities of exploration in ways that please me and that make what might seem to be an empty exercise into something I cared about and was proud of when I finished.

You can do this too. School or work or parenting or whatever it is that you must do in life is always offering you the opportunity for authentic and enthusiastic engagement. Most teachers won’t tell you this explicitly, but they’re hoping you’ll get it. It’s the secret at the heart of lifelong learning. So your teachers create activities and assignments, design scoring guides, and try to provide helpful guidelines, but they’re also imagining that at least some of you will see beyond these things into the real purpose of education: making your life better, richer, more meaningful.

I’m teaching summer courses and in my on-campus courses everyone is completing a complex yet useful assignment as a major part of the requirements, a plan for their first five days of school. The class includes students who’ve had courses with me before and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t are nervous. What do I want? What will please me? One of the students who’s had other courses with me articulated my philosophy better than I could have. Here’s the essence of Jim Janousek’s comments to the class:

Read the assignment, get the gist of it (what’s the purpose of what you’re being asked to do?), and then produce something that you can use in your classroom (I am teaching teachers right now, but this applies to other student experiences as well—I’ve used much of my undergraduate work as the basis for my professional work). I stress: do something that you can use!

This takes away the anxiety of the assignment and makes it more fun when you’re thinking about implementing those ideas in your own classroom. (There are times when I have very specific goals for students and I am explicit about them, but often the guidelines I provide are simply meant to be helpful for those who don’t have ideas yet about how they want to proceed. I always welcome thoughtful alternatives and suggestions from students.)

What works for you, works for Zinn! (If your intentionality shines through, it’s likely that I will be delighted.)

As long as you put thought and time into your assignment, remember Zinn’s grading scale is cares or doesn’t care. (You got it, Jim!)

What do you need to care about?

We are all functioning at a small fraction of our capacity to live fully in its total meaning of loving, caring, creting, and adventuring. Consequently, the actualizing of our potential can become the most exciting adventure of our lifetime. • Herbert A. Otto

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Quality Is When You Smile at the Little Details *

February 16, 2010

I’m a thrift shopper and I think about quality whenever I’m in one of my regular haunts. Thrift shopping is like a treasure hunt; I never know what I’ll find. I understand that some folks are put off by the idea of using something that someone else has discarded, but I grew up hunting for useful stuff at the dump, so I’m not at all squeamish. I have even been known to wear other people’s shoes. Especially bowling shoes. Besides, I like to imagine the others who have used or read or worn or loved my latest purchase.

As I hunt for bargains in thrift or antique stores, I am often surprised by the excellent condition of things that have obviously been used and yet are decades old: clothing, games, books, jewelry, furniture, even “cheap” odds and ends and bric-a-brac. Sometimes stuff was made to last. I seldom feel that way about anything any more unless it’s been handcrafted by someone who cares.

When I was a teenager, I read Vance Packard’s (1960) book, The Waste Makers, and was greatly influenced by his discussion of the “obsolescence of desirability” and the “obsolescence of function,” referring to deliberate attempts by auto and appliance manufacturers or fashion designers or whomever is determined to convince consumers that they need the latest model of whatever it is because what they currently own or are wearing is either passé or lacking some crucial element that will make their life infinitely more satisfying once they acquire it.

I think about planned obsolescence every time I see a new telephone with features I don’t need and would probably never use. I think about it whenever I see an advertisement for a television that will bring the world into my living room so that I will feel as though I’m right there, whether it’s a football game or the rain forest or Paris at night. I think about it when I hear discussions of fashion forwardness on my guilty pleasure, Project Runway. No one wants to hear Heidi or Michael or Nina tell them their work is “so eighties.”

The world of planned obsolescence is all about creating desire for what is up-to-the-minute. The latest. It’s just a bonus if you produce crap  (well, that’s what it is and my grandma who always said “hmmm” instead of  “hell” used this word to describe some of the worthless-in-her-estimation junk that grandpa and I scrounged at the dump) that doesn’t last because then folks like me who don’t care about the latest will be driven to purchase it when the item we’d planned to use for years lasts only a few months. I won’t even start to rant about the systemic obsolescence that drives computer usage. Keep hard copy, that’s my advice, because you can’t count on being able to open your files forever.

Booker T. Washington said that excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way. This is a pretty good definition of the kind of work I’d like to receive from students in this or any quarter. It’s not that what we are doing isn’t similar to something students have probably done before. Every quarter has its share of presentations or papers or all of the other expected academic activities, but even those things can transcend expectations and become extraordinary if a creative mind brings effort and intention to the task.

You may be wondering how this is related to thrift stores and planned obsolescence. It’s related because the work any student creates can be either something s/he looks back on with pride or it can be something s/he is ashamed of, obsolete before it’s even been graded because no effort or thought has gone into its manufacture.

Imagine your work being found by a student fifty years in the future. Would s/he be intrigued by what you’ve written? Would you provide an authentic glimpse into whatever topic you’re exploring that would allow this future reader to understand current thought? Or would s/he just think that it’s a pathetic piece of meaningless trash? Harsh words, I know, but they come from someone who’s read many a pathetic piece of meaningless trash and would delight in never reading another.

Will your academic work have staying power? Will you be proud to look at it in ten years and think back fondly on the genuine effort you put into it?

If what you do matters to you, your quality work makes it matter to others.
• Dr. Pauline Wayne

* Thanks to Sarah Lambie, an extremely creative former student whose work embodied quality.