Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Critical Thinking: Not Just an Exercise

Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks recently wrote about a turnaround at Manual Arts High, the oldest high school in the sprawling—and struggling—L.A. Unified District. According to Banks, the school is starting to rebound with help from MLA Partner Schools, a nonprofit that works to “improve schools and empower neighborhoods.” MLA’s approach is to partner with schools serving disenfranchised neighborhoods rather than going the more heavy-handed route of taking them over.

This wasn’t the first I’d heard of Manual Arts. Last year, I got acquainted with an English teacher there named Antero Garcia. He had gotten his students to participate in something called the Black Cloud Project, an interactive, innovative game that prompted them to ask hard questions about the health of their local environment. In the process, many students got energized about what they could do to change their school and their neighborhood. Garcia shared some highlights of that experience, via Skype, during our session at EduCon last year. (He also shared some of the frustrations of trying to teach from behind a firewall in this story for Edutopia.)

So when I saw Manual Art High in the news, I went straight to Garcia’s blog for a reaction. I wasn’t disappointed. In this post on The American Crawl, he shares his students’ responses to the L.A. Times story. Their comments are not quite so glowing as the story Banks tells. Even Garcia admits he was “surprised by the vitriol.”

But they’re well worth a read. This is the kind of real-world writing assignment that encourages students to be critical consumers of media. Did the reporter get to the essence of what's happening at Manual Arts High, or miss the main point? Responding to that prompt invites students to think critically—about the media, as well as about their own lives.

What seems to have infuriated many students wasn’t the way that Banks described them and their South Central neighborhood (“Forty percent of its students are still learning English, and 20% live in foster homes. Even its name and mascot -- the Manual Arts Toilers -- suggest that ceaseless struggle is its legacy.”) It’s the lack of student voice in school improvement efforts.

I hope the partners at MLA are listening.

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