This morning, I got organised to do the last session of compulsory MSE (state) testing with my Year 9 class. Booklets out, pencils ready to shade those truth-telling bubbles, DVD ready, all good until we had a minor calamity next door. When fixed, our DVD froze repeatedly, rendering the whole exercise pretty much invalid. Plan B – we jumped on the net to show an antidote to testing – Dr Stuart Brown’s TED talk about the importance of play. The otherwise very reliable wireless network goes down. Plan C – start showing Ken Robinson’s seminal TED talk (Schools killing creativity) I had saved on my laptop. It was a long shot, still in the creativity alley but I feared the kids would get a tad bored. And they did…about 4 minutes into it. The first paper plane flew around… Plan D – I held up the rubbish basket at one end of the class and said: “This is an airport. You all get one piece of paper to land in it from behind this line.” What happened next will stay with me for a long time.
The kids from two classes (my “bottom” achievers class were joined by the “top” (Academic Extension) class thanks to another calamity) busily started designing the most elaborate paper planes and test-flying them around the place. Ever seen and heard about 15 paper planes in the air at the same time in a small class, with music going and 40 kids chatting away? Creative mess! After the 5 minute deadline it was time to ‘land’. Many planes, no landings inside the ‘airport’ box.
Then ‘Peter’ (not his real name), scrunches up a piece of paper and lands it in the box. Another student copies and does the same. Nobody really notices it, all busy missing with their planes. We finish and clean up. I do the spiel about how ‘Peter’ was the only person in this class who thought laterally and creatively. The problem was to ‘land a piece of paper in the box’, not ‘land a paper aeroplane in a box airport’. He got it!
OK, no big deal you may think. Let me tell you a little about Peter. As a result of an accident as a young child, Peter has had learning and social difficulties all of his years at school. He fights, metaphorically and with his fists. He is in my “bottom” class (as kids would so aptly know). He is not in class very often. He does not ‘like to read or write because he sucks at it’ (his words). He swears. He has a very short fuse. During the first round if MSE testing yesterday, he said to my colleague “I am not doing this, I don’t need another test to tell me how stupid I am.” I can go on but I think you get the picture, one of those ‘unteachables’ some would say.
Today, he has shown to himself and others that he is not ‘dumb’ by default like he has been told (and measured so!) for many, many years. Yes, small example, ‘trivial, feel good stuff while he is missing on real education’ some would say. Yes, ‘landing bits of paper won’t get him a job’. Yes, he should be … you’ve probably heard the list.
But I tell you what. Telling Peter that he is the cleverest (for once) and a creative thinker straightened his spine. This wasn’t some phoney, ‘feel good’ pep-talk (kids smell those coming from a mile!). I wrote him a little “Choose Respect” slip we use at school to acknowledge a positive with just a few quiet words of encouragement in person. I got a ‘thanks Sir” and a fist-bump – huge!
To the class (my beloved “bottom achievers”), I simply said “People do and will tell you that you are dumb. The tests we will still have to do next time will probably show that you are dumb. Are you going to believe that? Or are you going to show, like Peter today, that you can be clever and creative. Imagine Peter was an employee of a large company, they needed to solve a problem and he came up with a simple, original solution that saves them millions of dollars. Ability to have a go and think creatively will be worth more than any tests you pass from now on. You just need to work out how to pass enough tests to get where you want to go.”
Peter will probably not change overnight to some ‘model student’. I still expect him to get in trouble. But if for once he shows himself he is not a verifiable idiot the tests (will) show, he may just change a few things in his life. Peter, you made my day!