Life isn't always about the right answer: a guest blog from a teacher of 30 years

Guest blogger Sheryl Nakonechny taught with my mom at Clinton Rosette Middle School in DeKalb, IL, and when I was just starting out as a teacher I was lucky enough to teach alongside her as well.  Sheryl is an award winning teacher who retired this year after 30 years of service.  She believed in invoking the imagination and using a hands-on approach to learning, but as test scores became the primary focus, this became increasingly more difficult.

When I was teaching language arts or science in the middle school, I reveled in that I had not only two of my favorite subjects to teach, but that there was an expectation for my students to use their imagination.

Yes, I did need some exact information about a character in a book or an element’s properties, but I wasn’t tied to the correct answer in math or the dates of the Civil War battles.  In language arts and science I could propose possibilities and interpretations only limited by the number of kids in my classroom.

I often taught a theme, such as personal courage, and then used several novels at various reading levels and genres to illustrate. We might start in a whole class group for learning specific literature terms, then break into our small groups to find examples of them in our novels.

I would often tie in a writing activity, such as a scrapbook complied by the main character. The directions for this lesson plan was only to be expanded by the number kids on my roster.

Each student could look through his character’s eyes and interpret what would be significant events, souvenirs and diary entries to save in the scrapbook.  Thirty-one kids equaled thirty-one individualized creative projects demonstrating their understanding.

In science, I believed in hands-on activities, usually low budget as there were limited supplies at my school.  I would begin the year with “kitchen science” activities that would require the students to not only weigh, measure and record, but also to observe and predict.

Many students had little to no science experiences from elementary school due to the emphasis on math and reading so they needed guidance. For some, this was a whole new subject area in which you could make messes and learn.  To observe, interpret and imagine were to be built upon all year.

Over the thirty years that I taught in middle school, I have seen students need more of knowing the right answer rather than using imagination.  Many kids would come to me, some repeatedly within a class period, wanting to know “if this is right.”

Some became mildly anxious when I wouldn’t tell them the answer they wanted but would direct them to explore.  I began to see when I explained a project more blank looks rather than the “I can’t wait to start” looks that these same assignments had had in the past.

What was historically a tried and true experiment, now took “romancing” them to be interested.  Some kids truly preferred the worksheet approach rather than an activity because it was easier and straightforward.

My observations on why this was happening are nonscientific, although you might think that they should be.  One is the lack of experiences as I taught more and more kids in poverty over the years. At one time, I had kids with multiple stamps in their passports. Today, a day at Great America is a luxury.

With the emphasis on testing scores, students have learned that that is the hoop to jump through … the right answer is most important. In an effort to provide the same education for all students, my last years of language arts was teaching the same story, the same skill, the same test at the same time as all other teachers at my grade level.  Sadly, the “cookie cutter approach” has diminished teacher creativity and student interest.

For some kids, after school activities are heavily scheduled so that they have little down time. When they do, they want someone to plan and/or organize it rather than think of something to do. Kids do not play outside unless it is an organized sport or activity despite parks and neighborhoods - games like Kick the Can are very retro.

I would ask that parents and anyone who works with kids to keep providing them opportunities for imagination. Sometimes it takes more effort and can be messy, but it's so worth it. Kids learn to be creative, trust their own ideas and to be resilient.  Life isn’t always about the right answer.

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