When I first started teaching high school in 1995, I showed my students an episode from The Simpsons. It’s titled Bart Gets An F, and if you are curious about more details, you can click that link or rent the series (I just learned that it’s the first episode of the second season of the show).
In the episode, school is cancelled thanks to a blizzard, but Bart has a crucial history test to study for the next day. If he fails, he will have to repeat the fourth grade.
Because he stays inside to study, Bart ends up missing what Mayor Quimby declares to be: “Snow Day, the funnest day in the history of Springfield.”
I showed the clip to students back in 1995 to make a point about “demonstrating applied knowledge.” In the episode, Bart fails his test with a 59. He starts crying and he laments to his teacher, “Now I understand how George Washington felt when he surrendered Fort Necessity to the French in 1754.”
His teacher is shocked at Bart’s knowledge. When she looks up the reference in the history text, she sees that Bart is right. She gasps that Bart has just “demonstrated applied knowledge.” She continues to say that, “due to the difficulty and relative obscurity of the reference, you deserve an extra point on your exam.”
So Bart passes the test and does not have to repeat fourth grade.
I told my students I wanted to see them “demonstrate applied knowledge” as often as possible. I wanted to make sure they did not just spit back facts, but that they thought about the material. Easier said than done — especially for a first year teacher.
Sixteen years later, I find myself thinking about the same Simpsons episode, but with a different focus. I still love the idea of “demonstrating applied knowledge” and the importance of empathy (in this case, Bart is empathizing with the plight of Lieutenant Colonel Washington).
But now I’m focusing on the snow.
Why do we have to cancel school on snow days? Most snow days don’t happen until November or December, and by that time community and routines have been established. Do students have to be in school to learn?
I’m currently learning in an online environment where a group of more than a dozen professional educators log on every Wednesday night to have a class in a virtual meeting space. We meet tonight, in fact, and I’m looking forward to the session.
But the experience of being enrolled in the course is far more than the time that we’re together synchronously “in class.” We’ve developed, in just five class meetings of 90 minutes each, a sense of community. We’ve contributed in various online spaces in writing, in video clips and through stories.
The people in this class have become part of my personal learning network, and I’ve learned a lot from them. I anticipate that these folks will become good friends from whom I learn a great deal in the future, long after the “class” is over.
I read a superb post by Hiram Cuevas this morning (thanks to Jason Ramsden for Tweeting about the post) titled When you hire someone, you hire their network!
Here’s a screen clipping from Hiram’s post:
People hiring teachers are looking for regular active participation that adds value. Not surprisingly, teachers are looking for the same from students. I’d argue that we look for those same qualities in our friends and family members. But that sort of participation should not be limited to what a student does “in class.”
Indeed, once a class gets going, students should be co-creating content with their classmates and with people all over the world. They should be inspired to do the work even if they are not in class. And if there’s snow, or if they have to be somewhere else for a good reason, there’s no reason why students can’t virtually participate and add to the community.
If what we’re looking for is “regular active participation that adds value” that sort of participation should not be limited to when students are physically in class. And we should think hard about why we require students to be in the same physical space and what we have them do once they are in that common space.
It’s all about establishing a quality learning environment and developing community. Once that happens, it’s like the saying over the main Post Office building in New York City:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds
But in a school setting, instead of having couriers deliver mail, what we want is for students and teachers to make meaningful contributions to the learning process.
That’s what Bart did when he studied.
Just because he did not pass his teacher’s written test does not mean he did not learn. Imagine if Bart had been asked to reflect on his blog about what he’d learned from his studying, rather than being subjected to a test of what the teacher thought was important to know…