This week, my students were instructed to interview one another to get information to write a piece of creative non-fiction based on the life and times of one of their classmates. For homework the night before the assignment, they were told to brainstorm three questions to ask their peers that would get them to tell a story and then told the day of the interview that they were not limited to those three questions when interviewing their peers. Throughout the class period, students were asking what to do when they finished asking their three questions--my response, ask more, make sure you have enough information to base a story on--their look: quizzical. Saturday, two days post interviews, I have students asking me if their stories should only be based on those three questions that they asked.
Now I could take this time to bemoan the very short attention spans of the modern student or their inability to reference materials that they are given before asking questions or even their lack of bravery in writing a rough draft, but no, I'm going to focus on their literalness ....
Does anyone remember the old color by number books? The ones where you had a small palette of paints that were numbered instead of labeled by color and you colored all of the ones green because green was labeled one and the sevens were red, so every shape labeled seven became red and in the end, you ended up with something that looked similar to a Claude Monet masterpiece, and you never really varied from what the book told you to color because you wanted it to look like that Monet. I feel like that is what is going on with our current students--they are so scared of making a mistake that they cannot look beyond the most basic of instructions. If a teacher says that they want three questions, they are only going to get three questions. If a teacher says that there is only one answer, the students will believe that that is in fact the ONLY answer.
I know that this should seem like a good thing, but it scares me. I would rather have students who follow the advice of Miss Frizzle and take chances and make messes. I would rather have to reign someone in than have them scared to charge forward. Their timidity worries me.
I chose to teach English because I enjoyed the freedom that is inherently associated with the subject. I like that in English there doesn't have to be one answer, that debate is an important part of the discourse, and that the most important skill is the ability to defend one's position. I love that there is not a box associated with my subject and that our lines are written or recited rather than colored between. It is hard to become complacent because in theory, there will always be students who will challenge you as an English teacher (and not in the disciplinary, administrative way).
In August, my students are so scared of making a mistake that they do not want to take risks; they create their own boxes to hide in as they figure me, the class, and in some cases, high school out. By January, they challenge what I say and have figured out how to question an assignment to find a way to make it their own (though I do have some who can do it now, like the young woman who wants to write her interviewee into her interviewee's favorite movie). Maybe as Common Core replaces VSC, and more students have had to exercise the critical thinking portion of their brains, August will look more like January.