The message of the first chapter of Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students is the importance of student models. I think a lot of educators are afraid to use models because they want student ideas to be original, and they are afraid students will simply copy the models. It is our job as an educator to ensure that they don’t. I think most students really want to be creative and original. Sometimes, however, they don’t know how to start with project until they see how someone else did it. Models give us all something to strive for.
Berger also shares his process for collecting student work. He says, “One of my jobs as a teacher, I feel, is to be an historian of excellence, an archiver of excellence” (29). He doesn’t just use the models and portfolios of student work to show his students. He also uses them to show others what his students have learned and what they can do. Several anecdotes describe the surprise followed quickly by skepticism that others can feel upon seeing his students’ work. If the students are given time to draft, revise, refine, and really wrestle with their learning, they can produce amazing things. I have often found that giving students choices about how to present their learning really awakens them. I have also had students that were much more concerned about their grades than learning and doing excellent work they could be proud of, and that pressure was often external as much as it was internal. Sometimes I really wish we could do away with grades completely, as I think grades become the point of learning instead of learning being the point all on its own.
Another issue Berger describes with great honesty is the fact that his students are mostly white and rural. When he has presented to audiences teaching students of color in urban environments, they are skeptical that their students can do the same great work. Berger says it is about a school’s culture. Teaching is hard no matter where you do it. It’s harder when you don’t have what you need.
When Berger comes to visit our school in preplanning, I hope he brings his students’ work. I have to admit I am curious about it after reading his description of it.