What we have here is a failure to appreciate. Are there some things we cannot teach?
Two of my lessons struggled a bit lately, and while they were very dissimilar in terms of relative gravity, they failed for the same reason: a failure to appreciate.
The first lesson was on slavery in the United States. Our project is to create dual-perspective slideshows, where each historical picture is narrated from the perspective of slave and slaveowner. I hunted around for an array of images, some gripping and some mundane, to give them a chance to reflect on many different aspects of slavery. The classroom teacher has done several lessons about the details and stories of slavery. We thought that we had conveyed the degree of sensitivity and sincerity required in this area, but yet found our kids goofing off and producing slideshows that seemed to be striving for comedic.
The latter lesson was on a brilliantly simple computer program, BallDropping. In this class, the kids are learning to use Scratch and create their own games. I was very excited to find this program as a demonstration to the kids of how simple and yet entertaining a game can be, even verging on the point of being performance art. The program uses only circles and lines, two colors, and yet incorporates a tremendous array of ideas in music, art and physics. Yet many of the kids were obnoxiously vocal in finding it boring and too simple.
Is the failure to appreciate mine or theirs? Did I forget my students' development, and expect too much? Or did they not bring their best attitudes and efforts, and produce too little?
On one hand, I am almost always willing to accept the blame. I am the leader in the classroom; I'm steering the ship, it's my fault if we don't wind up where I want to be. On the other hand, these lessons were well planned, carefully prepared and presented with enthusiasm. I very rarely find that I miss on the lessons I'm very ready and excited to share.
If the kids simply didn't give it their best, then that's that, but I'm stuck with another question: How, exactly, do we teach "appreciation?" If we make it explicit, if we say, "This is sad, be serious. This is beautiful, enjoy it." are we really teaching anything, or are we just asking them to regurgitate the reactions we've made it clear we expect? Or, is that just part of our job, showing the youngsters all things terrible and terrific, and teaching them how to respond appropriately?
Further, we cannot control what will resonate with a child and when. Are we, as adults, always in the mood to watch a stirring Holocaust documentary, or go to an art exhibit? Hardly. Why expect that the kids will be ready to feel sad or enjoy art because that's what's on our calendar? Yet, I am not asking for emotional reaction, I am asking for appropriate response. We do not laugh at slavery, and we do not discount art because it is simple. Surely, those are reasonable lines to draw in the sand. Aren't they?