Friday, March 10, 2017

Responding with Humanity

“It’s not the end of the world if they’re doing something a little different” (Hochkeppel).

At the time that I started writing this post out, I was preparing for a State competition with the director/teacher/role model that I intended to highlight. That wasn’t really a necessary thought to share, but I found it funny. Throughout the school, he is widely recognizable as the sometimes eccentric member of the fine arts wing. Although his methods can be unorthodox, he has managed to capture the hearts of students of past, present, and even future.

I have been through a good amount of classes and productions with him at this point in time. Regardless of the ever-changing class and rehearsal format, one aspect of my interactions with Mr. Hochkeppel have remained constant; his philosophy towards teaching. Central in his pedagogy is the idea that students should have as much freedom as possible. The man affectionately known as H, believes very strongly that when students are given the chance to succeed, they will.

Over the course of a couple weeks, I held interviews with H in order to paint a decent picture of how he thinks. The quotes Mr. Hochkeppel shared with me in our interviews were pretty indicative of the way he runs class. I hope that by the end of this article it is clear why he is so impactful and so widely beloved.

“All these kids up here, they have the ability and they have the potential. Now all they need is to be given the opportunity" (Hochkeppel).

At my high school, this quote is synonymous with H. It can be found all over our drama department as well as a giant sign in the Black Box (the theater classroom). This mantra is very much one he lives and teaches by.

Outside of actually directing, students run every aspect of the theater department. We design and build the set, advertise the show, make the costumes, run the lights and sound, choreograph, and search for props (along with any left out aspects of theater). H has expectations and we know we have to meet them. There is no need for him to hold our hand throughout the journey. Not only does it harness students’ need for independence, it builds a mutual trust between the two parties. Mr. Hochkeppel professes his trust of us and backs it up with giving us space to try new things. In turn, our trust in him grows because it is ingrained in us that he is on our side. He believes “the best way to make high quality work when you have a band of… people is give them as much freedom as possible” (Hochkeppel). If H were to run the department in an authoritarian manner instead of one built on a symbiotic relationship, dissension would fester. Our shows would not nearly be as successful, his classes would not retain a lot of the curriculum taught to them, and frankly fewer students would want to join.

Effective teaching is all about establishing an environment similar to this. It is necessary for students to have freedom to make choices and mistakes on their own and to experience the consequences of each.

“Unfortunately, I think we graduate people who are not ready to take on the world… because we’ve kept them, artificially, from the world” (Hochkeppel).

Assignments that students are forced to complete often have no authenticity behind them. Most of the time, they would have very little value outside the walls of the school building. Instead of doling out worksheets “let’s create as real a world as we can imagine” (Hochkeppel) for students. “School doesn’t work for some great percentage of people, if working means you come out… a lot smarter and ready to take on the world” (Hochkeppel) and a lot of that stems from a lack of real world application. For kids, it’s not unusual to be faced with daily textbook readings and passionless reading response questions. The workplace just assigns adults projects that need to get done. If school is supposed to mirror future occupational labor, then the framework of assignments needs to shift.

One method for educators to potentially assuage this issue is to consider the real purpose of assigned work. Work students are completing should not be used as a distraction tool. If something is not directly evolving a student’s comprehension it needs to be axed. Even “behavior problems… [are] because you have intelligent people who are noticing they’re being asked to do something senseless” (Hochkeppel). A simple fix would be to get the ‘senseless’ out of school. Busy work, not only annihilates any positive rapport that’s been built; it creates a blurry image of what learning actually looks like. The latter is a potentially more serious issue.

“I don’t believe in tests beyond doing. The paper can fool you. You can get all A’s and not know how to do anything” (Hochkeppel).

Since my freshman year, I’ve had three classes with Mr. Hochkeppel as the teacher; Technical Theater, Public Speaking, and Creative Writing. All of them were different in subject matter, but were run with the same goal in mind: “getting students to ‘do’” (Hochkeppel). At this point, it is a given that paper and pencil tests do not always fully evaluate a student’s knowledge. Students may understand the material, but may have extremely bad test-taking anxiety. Due to the nature of assessments like these, some may still show signs of comprehension despite not actually knowing much about the topic.

When I asked H about his education background, he brought up how he fared in school. While he excelled at completing quizzes, he felt under-prepared heading into the professional world. H noted that “in real life, there aren’t a bunch of tests you have to pass. Nobody cares about what you can do on paper” (Hochkeppel). He is absolutely right too. If a surgeon scores well on every test they take in medical school, but then does not know how to safely complete a surgery, there will be very large ramifications. Mr. Hochkeppel is very outspoken that “rather than just giving students some Latin terms to teach persuasion… we should [have] students… persuade” (Hochkeppel). The best way to learn is to do. Regurgitating phrases onto a worksheet doesn’t hit the curriculum home a majority of the time. Just like in my history class [insert shameless plug for my blog post last week], without an opportunity to take off the “thinking cap” and put on the “doing cap,” information won’t stick as often.

Other schools in our area have Technical Theater classes, but very few get as much accomplished as Mr. Hochkeppel’s do. Instead of wasting time on going over how one might build a set, his students just jump right in. Our learning mostly occurred through experience. If we built a faulty set piece, we inspected it and, with H’s help, found ways to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. The importance of “as early as possible… get[ting] kids judging: was this a good move or a bad move?” (Hochkeppel) is high because it grows their independence. It allows students to learn from their own mistakes, in real time, and figure out how best to solve issues proactively. In Public Speaking, in the first semester of my sophomore year, we didn’t discuss the theory of good public speaking. The class jumped right in and started performing, later coming together for constructive criticism. Currently, I’m in his Creative Writing class. On the first day of class, we already had an assignment. He explained that had we come together to converse about how to write creatively (instead of actually writing), nothing would ever get completed. Art is too subjective for there to be one, correct formula to writing. Not to mention, the word ‘formula’ and ‘writing’ shouldn’t ever be near each other in a sentence. Writing has a mind of its own and can take whatever form the author chooses. H understands his “version of what you gotta know is silly” (Hochkeppel) to everyone except for him. The way he writes is completely valid, but it may not make sense for me to adopt all of his personal guidelines. To me, that idea is crucial to a classroom’s success.

It is treasonous to the subject of English to pretend writing only fits one mold. Writing is about expressing what writers need to express. Educators that teach to check off boxes rather than let ideas flow free are leading their students to become bland and inexpressive. Mr. Hochkeppel agrees with that sentiment. He even goes as far as saying the current public education system is destined to follow that path more than often.

“Do the citizens belong to the state? I kind of think that’s the implication of the [school structure]” (Hochkeppel).

Individuality is often suppressed by the public education system. It is very true that “some go through school damaged by the continued assault on personal value” (Hochkeppel). In most of my English classes, when we analyze the books we read, our teacher stands at the front of the room and essentially tells us how we should interpret it. A couple of my peers have been shot down, in front of the rest of the class, because they had an alternative interpretation. I strongly agreed with H when he said, “I don’t think there should be some big apparatus telling students what the real story is” (Hochkeppel). That is transferrable to any subject. There are multiple sides to history. There are conflicting theories in science. There are abundant ways students can experience a book. “If we [break down] all the facts in the average SOL… you could say ‘that’s a decent fact to know’ but it’s not like you need to know that… for a good life” (Hochkeppel) and student rapport diminishes when teachers value trivia over true comprehension. There’s a stark difference between teaching disjointed facts and actually ingraining information in a student’s brain.

One of the biggest aspects of my Creative Writing class is analyzing each other’s work, for the purpose of understanding clear author’s purpose. Just because classmates differ in opinions doesn’t mean they need to come to a consensus. Disagreements are a very real part of life. Teachers should “trust people not to be good, but… trust people to look out for their own interests and to do what they see is right” (Hochkeppel). Who are teachers to tell us how we see the world is incorrect?

Mentally make a list of all the great thinkers of our world’s time. Albert Einstein. Sigmund Freud. Thomas Edison. Galileo. Some might argue we no longer have people like them in America. H vociferously disagreed:

“We look at [great thinkers] and say, ‘Wow why don’t we have smart people like [them] anymore?’ The fact is, we do. We have just as smart people… but we have funneled them through a system… which takes away… autonomy and… personal judgement” (Hochkeppel).

Rather than allowing students to find themselves, the current structure attempts to confine them to one way of thinking. The goal of school is to help students grow into fully independent adults. “We train kids to be afraid to do anything without an adult’s say so” (Hochkeppel) and when that is instilled in us, we are destined to fail in the outside world. If when we’re younger, we are not allowed to speak our minds or form our own opinions, we never will. That would be borderline apocalyptic for the future.

“Kids are made to feel like crap for not being good enough for these tests. Even though those tests aren’t an objective yard stick to measure value, we treat them that way” (Hochkeppel).

Students respond to humanity, more so than we do to hard data. On our first day of grade school, numbers become attached to us. Grades, lunch numbers, student IDs, class numbers – every aspect of our very existence is quantified. All the time, I start off the school year taking a ‘how do you learn’ quiz. Very few, if any, of my teachers follow through and adjust to the way I learn. We follow the same formulaic agenda:
  • Guided Notes
  • Worksheet
  • Discuss as a class
  • Test
It doesn’t matter if you’re an auditory learner, a visual learner, a kinesthetic learner, or a completely different learner; you’re doing the same thing as everyone else.

The opposite is also very much true. I’ve had teachers in the past who are overly reliant on test scores (specifically reading levels) and use them to divide classes into ‘smart’ kids and ‘slow’ kids. “It’s a bit of a mania when the end result is not better teaching, but a kind of non responsive way of thinking,” (Hochkeppel) H pointed out, when I asked about his thoughts on the sudden push for the “huge push nationally… for… data” (Hochkeppel). At this point it should be very clear that no two students think, work, or act the same, yet we get assessed in a one-size-fits-all fashion. 

Most times it seems that the system isn’t “meant to help every kid achieve their dream but rather as a sorting mechanism” (Hochkeppel). Data can certainly be a useful tool, but when it’s turned into the deciding factor of a child’s intelligence, it becomes detrimental to school in general. Over my eleven years in the American public school system so far, I’ve been labeled the ‘smart’ kid and the ‘slow’ kid. Both labels hurt me, personally. When I’m painted as belonging in the ‘smart’ group, I’m expected to know every answer when called on. If I don’t, I get a disapproving look from the teacher and maybe a discussion after class. When I’m described as one of the ‘slow’ kids, I’m told I need to put forth more effort – regardless of the work ethic I show. Mr. Hochkeppel believes “those numbers exist not to help the students to learn, but to help the powers that be, pick students and divide them [into who’s] valuable and… not” (Hochkeppel). Granted, I may not have the experience of graduate school or teaching a class of students, but I certainly have been led to believe that too. It’s very clear which students are teachers favorites and which ones aren’t when data becomes a focal point of the class.

Before I finish up, I'd like to quickly congratulate our drama department (run by Mr. Hochkeppel) on winning the state championship in Virginia's one act competition! It was a great experience and it is certainly deserving after all the work our cast and crew did. There is zero chance we could have accomplished this without H at the helm. He has been a role model of mine for the past two years and I'm honored to have the privilege of working with and learning from him for two more upcoming years.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

“You can’t keep… people down if they’re free, but you can certainly affect them greatly by taking twelve years of their life and making them subservient, obedient, and non free thinkers” (Hochkeppel).

Hochkeppel, Glen. "Interview with H: Part One." Personal interview. 18 Jan. 2017.

Hochkeppel, Glen. "Interview with H: Part Two." Personal interview. 8 Mar. 2017.

1 comment:

  1. Sam,
    An amazing and thoughtful post. I added this sentence to my writer's notebook so I could think about it some more . . ."A simple fix would be to get the ‘senseless’ out of school." I have to agree. Some days "sense" and "school" are not synonymous! Mr. H's views are quite sound.

    This made me sad . . ."It’s very clear which students are teachers favorites and which ones aren’t when data becomes a focal point of the class." All students deserve recognition for their individuality . . and not because of a "number".

    And yes, congratulations on winning the state One Act competition. What a real life honor! I'm guessing that H's students have several "wins" to date!

    As always, thanks for making me think about similarities in my experiences, past and present! Some thought-provoking and wise ideas included here! :-)