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John Nippolt
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         I've been in an angry funk for a week or so, and I've got to get something off my chest. I am sick and tired of hearing about how teachers aren't doing a good job. Got scapegoat?
        Wall street collapse? Teachers! Nationwide home foreclosures? Teachers! Obesity? Teachers! No manners? Teachers! No authority? You got that one right; teachers.
        As Congress grapples with providing American citizens a national healthcare bill and readies for subsequent legislation fallout, there is another dark cloud in the guise of educational reform looming above us.
        If you haven't heard, our schools are failing! Get the guns, Jed, our kids aren't getting high enough test scores and you know who is responsible for this?
        Not the President. Not the Senate or the House. Not big business think tanks. Not the Secretary of Education (or his advisors). Not the high ranking officials or administrators of the Departments of Education throughout the nation. (It couldn't be them, one of their boards or committees just came up with a new national set of standards for curriculum this year and I think those standards are already being challenged by some states.)
        Not my state's governor who has closed schools on Fridays to pay back state budget deficits, not our state legislators, (who voted themselves a substantial pay increase in 2009) not our Department of Education or Board of Education officials and administrators. Not the parents who do their kids homework for them. Not the children raising children, who have no life experience of their own to offer their unfortunate off-spring. Not the parents of children who call them when they are in a class. Not the parents who will believe the explanation of their child's behavior from the child before they would a teacher. Not the children who don't study because it isn't fun. Not the kids who are consistently late for class or those that don't come at all. Not the kids who come to school high, get suspended for the school year and whose parents demand that lesson plans be made for their little child who would otherwise fail for not being in class (duh) or, they will sue the Department of Education... they know their rights, so it can't be them.
        If a child breaks the law, disobeys school rules, gets suspended for a semester, well, you can bet there will be punishment meted out through the proper channels for these violations! An administrator will have to demand the student's teachers write up individual lesson plans for the little miscreant. Now there is a great example of the type of serious consequences we dole out for serious mistakes in our schools today. No, no, none of these folks are the cause for the problems running rampant throughout the nation's failing public education system. Or are they?
        From what I read in letters and other editorials, it's us, the teachers, who are at fault and we are the reason for schools closing. It's us, and us alone apparently. Poor test results, falling percentages of the amount of students who graduate, and a whole lot of other number crunching assessment devices that point their fingers at us are urging the powers that be, teacher heads must roll.
        Current research methods used to collect data and implement today's educational trends are using the wrong approach. Studies must be formulated longitudinally in order to track student learning successes or failures. It would cost more to do that but, things have been made worse by spending less and doing it completely wrong. The test assessors have not yet followed and collected data from any specific group as it moves from year to year to understand if that group is making the grade or not. Latitudinal comparisons might reveal that kids in the seventh grade last year were smarter or dumber than the kids in the seventh grade this year, but, these test results don't tell you if a teacher had anything to do with it.
        When I first started my teaching career I promised myself, the parents of my students, and my students themselves that I was not going to be one of the best teachers of the best test takers. I don't teach to tests and I don't test to teach, at least not in a regurgitative sense of the word.
        As our curriculum delivery and teaching methodology evolves technologically, current "reform trends" are demanding teachers deliver what is called 21st century learning to our students. Simply put, we have to design new lesson plans to create meaningful learning experiences that take the students out of the classroom and into the community. Learning that is supposed to be relevant, rigorous and contemporary. Curriculum design for students to take control of their own learning and perhaps enable a better understanding about how the real world operates.
        My colleagues and I were directed by our school's administration to create a 21st century learning unit plan that would be implemented sometime during this school year. One of the lines I now teach is beginning sculpture. I have built the sculpture program from a single line (one class) of ten students to two full lines (two classes) with 30 or more students. I am capable and well-versed enough with this discipline that I could take my students on a journey into a foundry and teach them bronze-casting methods, but that won't happen. There is no welding equipment (learning how to weld and use a cutting torch are just two of many pre-requisite skills to get into a foundry) available or, for that matter a kiln, or a room with space suitable for such work.
        I thought I would try something different for an introduction to sculpting the human body/form with my sculpture class this year. Normally, I use clay for our sculpting medium, but over the summer, I'd heard an idea about making life size figures out of clear packing tape stuffed with newspaper. I figured out a way to kill two birds with one stone.
       My idea was to get my class to work together as a group, create a sculpture and find a worthy place to exhibit it. (into the community) What better way can students understand the nature of artistic voice, whereby artwork transcends the artist to deliver the artist's message?
       I guided the class towards creating artwork for exhibition. As any working artist knows, there are valuable lessons to be learned in the art of creating an installation, timing is of the essence and usually relevant to the message of the piece.
       Before I taught the new sculpture making technique to the class, we brainstormed to find a theme and discuss what our goals or intentions for a sculpture might be. One paradigm I insisted on, was that the sculpture had to be relevant to concerns facing their age group. I allowed that it could be serious or satirical. What story would we tell? What choices must be made to portray our subject?
       The class determined they would talk about the health care debate, or, lack of it; this occurred back in November, long before any of the outcomes that have recently come to pass. They titled the sculpture "Healthcareless".
The sculpture consisted of 15 figures that represented both sides of the debate. The groups faced off at each other, each side with signs that declared their opposing views.
       I managed to have the sculpture installed at the State Capitol's entrance to the House and Senate chambers on the opening day of the state legislature in January. It caused some rumbling, some controversy, it was picked up in the morning newspaper, on the evening news, and e-mails came to the school.
       I received permission to leave it up for two days only, (timing) but when I took it down, a sheriff who works as security there asked me why I was taking it down. He told me, "We get thousands of pieces of artwork from schools all over the state, pinned all over the walls all year long, and nobody stops to look at them. But this...", there were people standing by taking pictures of the sculpture while we spoke, "everyone has taken notice, even the governor stopped to look at it."
       Our class had another opportunity to exhibit the work at the most prestigious venue in the state: The mayor's office, better known as Honolulu Hale. The exhibit ran for a week with an opening reception earmarked for a furlough Friday afternoon/evening. There would be entertainment (a teacher), a keynote speaker, (a teacher's teacher) and light snacks, (prepared by teachers and students). The student artists and their families would be there.
       I invited the governor, the acting state superintendant of schools, a few assistant superintendants of school districts, every member of the Board of Education, high ranking officials of the Department of Education, all the committee members of education from the Senate and House of Representatives, the head of the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts and their DOE liaisons, and others. I did request RSVP's and I received notes stating prior obligations by some, which was understandable.
       Conspicuously absent, not one of the other invitees made it to the show. I was trying to give all these movers and shakers a chance to gain some bragging rights about how well one of our Hawaii public schools was performing. Here was an installation featuring 15 individual life size sculptures that raised voice to one of the most passionately debated issues in the history of our country; the chance to witness state of the art contemporary curriculum that displayed student learning through the arts, and not one of those people who ultimately control what happens in and to our schools could take the time to be there that Friday. I even overheard someone who works at the University of Hawaii comment, "There is no work like this being done in the art department at UH."
        Sure, face it; I admit it was just another in the line of countless "high school" functions, but during this time of disparity about public education and reform, these officials could have used a little schooling themselves. I was saddened that these people could not make themselves available to support positive learning results achieved through rigorous and relevant education through the arts.
        What I think I'm trying to say is that in the rule making circles we have people pretending to be what they say they are. I offer an example of what I'm telling you. A legislator, who is a member of one of the education committees, (there are two, one for the house, one for the senate), wrote this letter to my class after receiving an invitation to attend our opening reception from one of my students:
        "Your politically correct art may be a poor interpretation of the reality of the healthcare debate. There is a lot of misinformation. For the most part, government monopolies (Medicaid, public education, etc. ) cost more and provide less. We all want reasonable health care and citizens who are able to care for themselves. Thank you for writing and inviting me to your event."
       Judging from what was said, the senator had probably not seen the installation, so, I wrote back:
       "Thank you for your remarks, and I hope you can find the time to join us. As you and I both know the state of Hawaii is not included in the national health care bill, yet health care reform or lack of it has stirred passionate debate and controversy. I have not allowed my students to take sides; their interpretations of what has been presented to them through the media is exactly that. More important is the learning opportunities arts education provides our students (at least for students here at my school). Our students want our legislators, education administrators, and officials as well as the public at large to join us and validate support for curriculum that is rigorous, relevant and contemporary."
       The politician talked politics, the teacher talked education. Is the senator a Republican or a Democrat? Who gives a damn? That person proved to be just another no show.