Sample 'Student Exhibition' From Sizer's Horace's School

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In calling for a markedly different vision of schooling, Theodore R. Sizer proposes in his new book, Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School, that each school design a series of student "exhibitions."

Successful completion of the exhibitions--rather than seat time--would become the basis for a high school diploma.

Following is one of a number of examples in the book of what such an exercise would look like, followed by Mr. Sizer's analysis of the value of the exhibition as well as what it attempts to measure:

Select one of the following familiar human emotions: fear, envy, courage, hunger, longing, joy, anger, greed, jealousy.

In a formal essay, give your personal definition of the emotion you choose. Then please render the same definition using at least three of the following forms of expression: (a) a written language other than English; (b) a piece of drawing, painting, or sculpture; photographs, a video, or film; a musical composition; a short story or play; pantomime; a dance.

Prepare a set of examples from literature, journalism, the arts, and history of other people's definitions or representations of the emotion you have chosen which strikes you as important and arresting, even if these do not correspond with your own definition.

Be ready in four months to present this work and to answer questions about it.

Here is an educational target. This Exhibition is a valid one. We ourselves are creatures of our emotions and we make judgments about others' emotions every day. Actions follow from such judgments. All students realize that.

It is important. Being reflective and self-conscious about fundamental human characteristics is a mark of a thoughtful and civil individual. People who are known to understand the emotions of others, and the actions that may follow on them, are universally admired. The ability to recognize emotions is a requisite for such understanding.

It raises issues that are at once highly personal and universal. While there is no one crisp, all-purpose definition of, say, anger, every one of us, without exception, employs one, consciously or unconsciously. Thoughtful people from all walks and conditions of life ponder not only their own practical definitions but those of others, in the present and from the past. We hope that people will act in principled ways on the basis of their considered, practical definitions.

It cuts across traditional scholarly disciplines in a respectful way while it demonstrates practice in the use of knowledge in a palpably "real" sense. Further, it puts matters raised independently in a variety of subjects into a sensible context, powerfully affirming the work in each discipline.

It asks each student to speak in several voices, through several media. While all students are expected to master clear written English, beyond that each can present herself in the ways she finds most persuasive.

It gives the student a reasonable choice of topic--the specific emotion selected--thus allowing him to plumb an area of particular interest.

It requires reflection. Idle guessing will not work. The student must inform himself and be precise in transmitting what he means.

It requires persistence and organization.

It provokes the student to think about the use of her definition by means of "speaking the same message" through different media and searching out arresting examples from others' expressions.

It allows the student to display his ability to unearth examples from a variety of sources, his skills of description and communication, his mastery of a range of information, and his ingenuity and imagination.

It reinforces the modern habit of using in combination a variety of forms of expression to give power to meaning.

It allows time for serious work to be accomplished. Although all of some comprehensive list of emotions (if one ever could be created) are not "covered," the student will practice the complex thought that is required to get a fair handle on the meaning of any emotion. That is, she will have the happy experience of pressing a critical definition with the thoroughness it deserves.

It promises that the student's work will be taken seriously and respected: it will be viewed and heard publicly and subjected to questions.

For most students, such an Exhibition on emotions is an interesting exercise and for many, indeed, fun.

For teachers it is a demanding exercise, requiring scholarly breadth, ingenuity (how to help a student connect various forms of expression around a common idea), and judgment (how to assay the time required for a particular student to complete the work; how to instill some self- confidence in a youngster hell-bent on avoiding anything new).

For the school, it requires a rich library, or student access to a nearby and cooperative public library, with patient and knowledgeable librarians.

Why an Exhibition? The word clearly states its purpose: the student must exhibit the products of his learning. If he does that well, he can convince himself that he is able to use knowledge, and he can so convince others. It is the academic equivalent of being able to sink free throws in basketball. You may not ring all of them, but if you consistently hit a good percentage, you gain confidence in yourself, and the coach will have the confidence to play you.

To shoot baskets well one needs to practice. To think well one needs to practice. Going to school is practicing to use one's mind well. One does not exercise one's mind in a vacuum; one rarely learns to "think" well with nothing but tricky brainteasers or questions embedded in a context that is neither realistic nor memorable. One needs to stimulate its exercise with engaging ideas in an equally engaging setting. Such ideas require the grasp of fundamental information.

However, the heart of it is in the play. Merely "knowing" ideas is as inert as knowing that one has to sink the free throw from the foul line. One has actually to sink the shot, has to use the ideas, has to be in the habit of using them, and use is always far more complicated than simple recall of propositions or rules or even an analysis of them. Fortunately, the use of ideas is the best vehicle for fixing their underlying information and skills into an individual's mind.

The Exhibition, then, is not only the target. It is also a representation of the way one prepares to reach the target. That is, school is about practicing to wrap one's mind powerfully around real and complex ideas, those of fundamental consequence for one personally and for the culture. It is not merely about coverage, or being informed, or displaying skills. It is the demonstration of the employment of all of these toward important and legitimate ends.

The final Exhibition is a "test," yes; but it is really an affirmation for the student herself and for her larger community that what she has long practiced in school, what skills and habits she has developed, have paid off.

Exhibitions can be powerful incentives for students. Knowing where the destination is always helps in getting there, and if that destination is cast in an interesting way, one is more likely to care about reaching it.

Truly genuine Exhibitions may be difficult to "grade"; that is, it may be hard to render a precise assessment of the achievement of the student. This Exhibition on emotions will likely have to be judged by a team of adults, somewhat like that empaneled to judge a diving event at a swimming meet. For example, points could be given for the clarity of written, oral, and other representational forms; for sophistication, the subtlety and perceptiveness of the student's definition, and his use of other people's definitions; for coherence and orderliness; and for appropriateness, the fitting of the definition to the examples the student puts forward. Grading will thus be time- and people-intensive. It must be careful, but it can never be icily objective, as some would want; the character of its standard depends on the particular student and his judges to an important degree.

Exhibitions give focus to a school's program. Unless a faculty is clear about what a student must display in order to deserve the high-school diploma, it is difficult to state what the curriculum, its pedagogy, the routines of school, and its standards should be. It is difficult to prepare the players if one does not know what playing the game entails. The nature of the play must be presented in terms of the action of the players-and not of the coach, whose activities are only a means to the players' ends. A school's program presented essentially as what the teachers do is misdirected.

A mindful school is clear about what it expects of a student and about how he can exhibit these qualities, just as a mindful student is one who knows where he is going, is disposed to get there, and is gathering the resources, the knowledge, and the skills to make the journey.

From the book Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School, by Theodore R. Sizer, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. (C)1992 by Theodore R. Sizer. Reprinted by permission.

Vol. 11, Issue 15, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: December 11, 1991, as Sample 'Student Exhibition' From Sizer's Horace's School
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