Sunday, March 29, 2009

Performing: An Educational Capstone

If you have ever watched your kids--or your friends' kids--perform in a concert; have a role in a play; argue a position on a debate, mock trial, or Model U.N. team; have a bar or bat mitzvah; run a mile in a race; or speak at City Council or another public body, then


that there is nothing like an upcoming performance to encourage mastery of the material.
And, there is nothing like a successfully completed public performance to give kids confidence.
And--for parents, teachers, and coaches--successful public performances are a huge source of pride.

Although there is plenty of educational research that says all that, and more, most "public performances" in schools are associated with extra-curricular activities (i.e., sports, theater, debate club) and electives (i.e., music). For our "core curriculum," what is there? Would students do better in math if they had to somehow provide a public performance? What students do better in English if they had the opportunity to perform?

I think they would.

Well, coming right up are two awesome, and different, performance opportunities. Although these are both extra-curricular, they do tie right in to curricular goals.

First--Poetry Slam! (Teens and Adults) If you have never seen a poetry slam, it is basically a chance for local poets to perform their own work. Yes, it's a competitive environment--but it's also supportive. The poems are sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching, and generally pretty high quality. These performers have already gotten to the finals. It should be a good show. Local teen poets and spoken word artists compete for the chance to advance to the city-wide slam finals and the opportunity to represent Ann Arbor at the 2009 National Youth Poetry Slam competition in Chicago.
2009 Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam Finals
Thursday, April 2, at 7 p.m. @ Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington, Ann Arbor
Admission $5 students/$7 general public
The Neutral Zone's Creative Writing Director, Jeff Kass, has a day job as an English teacher at Pioneer High School.

Second--Science Olympiad! (2nd to 5th graders) A Science Olympiad is basically an excuse for elementary school kids to practice, and perform, science-related skills in competition with other teams from other schools. Think Puff Mobiles (build a "puff-mobile" and blow it across the room), Estimania (how do you estimate those M & Ms in the jar?), and Water Rockets (yes, that involves shooting things in the air). But it's not just about knowledge--it's also about teamwork, cooperation, and strategy. Kids practice for weeks--PRACTICE learning SCIENCE; parents and teachers volunteer as coaches. Then, kids PERFORM...SCIENCE. It is really fun to watch, even if you are too old to participate. (Bring your first graders to get them interested. It's also interesting to watch the different schools perform. Yes, schools do have personalities, and they show up along with the kids on Science Olympiad day.) It's also really nice to see schools from all over the county--public, private, and charter. Last year, there was even a team of homeschoolers. Washtenaw Elementary Science Olympiad has been growing, and growing. It has outgrown the space in the local middle schools, and this year will be held at:
Skyline High School, Maple Road
Saturday, May 16th (it is more or less an all day event)
Find out more about the WESO Wizards here.


  1. I like your point about the value of performance for subjects not traditionally viewed as "performative." I just wish there was a way to do them without the competition element. We did Science Olympiad last year and were turned off by the competitiveness of some of the teams (kids who cheered when another team's water rocket didn't work, etc.). So this year my kid didn't want to participate even though he loves science. Maybe if more of the Science Olympiad coaches emphasized good sportsmanship it would have a different feel.

    We found that Science Fair had the same added "performative" boost that you were talking about but there was much more of an attitude of appreciating and learning from other people's exhibits. We spent hours touring the different boards and finding things to appreciate at all the different grade levels.

  2. The point about competition at Science Olympiad is very well taken. One of the reasons that I said that you can get a sense of the different schools' personalities is that some of them come across as very competitive, and others are more relaxed. It doesn't have to be competitive, and I'm sorry your child had a bad experience. But in fact, I have heard that some schools have competitions prior to the Science Olympiad and only the "best" kids go. In other cases a school with too many participants for an activity may send "alternates" who never get to do anything (because everyone shows up). So it is definitely not perfect. And I recognize that some kids find science fair a better place to put their energies. But for my kids, science fair almost never excited them, and never had that "performance" feeling--it was "just another project." (I always wanted them to like Science Fair more than they did.) Essentially, Science Olympiad is run by a bunch of volunteers, and (ironically) was set up as a counterpoint to Science Fair (breadth over depth, maybe?). I hope you will share your son's experiences with the WESO organizers--if not for him, for others--it shouldn't be a competitive turnoff.