Sacred Cows

I love writing. I adore metaphors and images so clear that I can lose the distinction between words and what the language evokes. One of my favorite poems is this gem by William Carlos Williams:

Image courtesy mcbarnicle on Flickr

This is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I read that poem for the first time in a high school creative writing class over half my life ago. Even now I can imagine the cold plum in my hands, the texture of the skin, and the sweet burst of flavor in the first bite that grows sharp and sour toward the stone. Poetry has always been a miraculous alchemy of text and imagination for me and I write from time to time for myself and for my students.

One of the life lessons I took away from that writing class has helped me shape not only my writing, but also my decision making. I’m sure at the time my teacher had no idea her suggestion would leave such a lasting impression.

K.Y.D. or Sacrificing Sacred Cows

When a writer has fallen in love with her idea and written every wild thought onto paper or into a document, the resulting piece can be an overwhelming tangle of images. In the revision process, it’s up to the writer to sharpen the focus or soften edges, polishing and refining the draft until only the essential elements remain. This is where the writerly advice to K.Y.D (kill your darlings) or sacrifice your sacred cows comes in.

"Old and New F-P Cows" Image courtesy teresia on Flickr

Sometimes we write beautiful descriptions that don’t advance the action and clog up a story’s rhythm. The writing is lovely, but it doesn’t achieve the aims of the piece; snip-cut, the darling must go. If the writer clings to tightly to every potential cut, the piece as a whole suffers. I learned through practice that the wild hare ideas and tangents that popped up in my essays and didn’t quite fit my thesis could become whole essays on their own if I allowed myself to make the painful cut and sacrifice a sacred cow. (Right now there are fifteen blog posts waiting in the wings; piles of sacred cows ready for reincarnation in a new form.)

Like my writing, my career has borne dear darlings and sacred cows, too. I vowed to return home and teach, embedding myself in the community where I had grown up; I now live over 1,000 miles away from it. I swore I would never teach middle school students, though my first job as a teacher was in a 7th grade classroom–and those students formed me as a professional. I believed book tests, lecture, and nightly homework made me a good teacher because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. As I’ve grown as an educator, I have let go of many of my former sacred cows and replaced the lazy dear-darlings (worksheets, vocabulary workbooks, book reports, cookie-cutter essay prompts) with stronger, more interesting, more challenging, and more collaborative work for my students and for myself.

Fire Up the Grill

The trouble I’m having with the education reform discussion is that many proposed “solutions” are propping up sacred cows and dear darlings: standardization, testing, conformity, submission, uniformity. The talking-points have become so sharp from frequent use that they’re used to pin disagreements and divergent opinions to the wall; I’d rather use them as skewers and grill up some sacred-cow kabobs. Until education reform is willing to address some systemic sacred cows, no amount of testing or meriting or byzantine formulas for assessing quality will amount to any positive change.

Dear darlings and sacred cows on my list?

Here are a few sacred cows and failed experiments I’d like education reform to address. If we’re not willing to question the merits of items like these, we will be unable to imagine the schools of the future.

  1. Birthdates are the best way to sort children into learning cohorts.
  2. It is not only possible, but best, for students to learn a prescribed set of information for all content areas and master it in one academic year.
  3. Retention policies based on the one-year, 100%-mastery ideal.
  4. English teachers as the only ones held accountable for teaching reading and writing.
  5. Mathematics is a mechanical process to be memorized rather than a way of thinking or problem solving.
  6. Grade levels K-12.
  7. Letter grades that reflect student behavior or compliance with assignment criteria rather than reflecting what students know and are able to do. (And the false equivalency of “the A” with “mastery.”)
  8. Desks in rows. Lockers. Printed textbooks. Assignments written or printed and handed in.
  9. Fetishizing trivia and testing its recall.
  10. Outsourcing professional development.
  11. 180 school days that start at 7:30. Five-day school weeks. Summer vacation.
  12. The supremacy of data and research findings when it comes to “core” subjects, but not when it applies to the arts or physical education.
  13. Eliminating recess.
  14. Segregating students by grade level so that older students and younger students rarely work together.
  15. Music, art, photography, dance, creative writing, and design are luxuries failing schools can’t afford. These are frills parents can provide for students outside a formal education and must be cut to pay for more important things. Like more tests.
  16. Lesson plans (lines) instead of educational designs (maps).
  17. The best way to develop divergent, creative thinkers is to ensure they all give the same correct answers on a standardized test.
  18. Prepackaged “programs” or methods foisted on all when it only works for some.
  19. Insisting that all schools are the same in every way, ignoring individual student and community needs and desires.
  20. Anything which, when questioned, the only response is: Because we’ve always done it this way.

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