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    An online thread with the title "Postermania!" prompted a lively discussion among Chicago-area parents and teachers. Here are some of the best contributions...

A school board member asks what's the deal with all the posters

I am a board of ed member in [a Chicago suburb], and am wondering where the current craze for having students spend an inordinate amount of their time making posters came from. I appreciate the fact that some small percentage of them will become graphic artists, but I question the value for just about everyone else. I recall last year an 8th grade poster my son had to do for a book he'd read. The requirement was to think of 8 different phrases that would describe one of the main characters in the book, and then find those words in magazines (of course, newspapers were not allowed because the print isn't "shiny"), and place them on the poster. The rubric was that the letters had to be of a certain size, so that people in the back could still read them. They had to be of complimentary colors, to produce an overall esthetic effect. They had to be of different styles, so one wouldn't become bored seeing the poster. I could go on and on.....

I had no problem with reading a book, obviously. I had no problem with finding key words or phrases to describe one of the characters. I did have a problem with sitting on Mother's Day all day on the floor helping my son find these particular words in magazines. The net effect, other than a very sore back and a short temper, was that the posters ended up looking like ransom letters. I should have complained on the fact that that may promote violence amongst the student population.

I find that each class, be it Language Arts, Social Studies or Spanish, promote posters as a major component of the grade. Perhaps this is why I elected to send my son to boarding school for high school. If no parents are there to purchase the poster board, etc., they can't assign them.

Even more appalling was a friend of mine's 9th grade child, who was assigned the task of renting a period costume for Social Studies (an Elizabethan dress and hat). I called my friend one morning, well after the first period had begun, but she couldn't talk as she was dressing her daughter. I responded by saying school started over an hour ago. Yes, that was true, but she had to get her in the costume, and do her hair to fit in with the hat, and she couldn't go to her first two periods dressed that way, so she was going in late. Of course, the period after she missed as well to "undress". The lesson learned here? That mommy can drop $80 and untold hours going into the city to rent the costume, and that the student can miss three other classes for the 10 minute demonstration of an Elizabethan costume. Forgive me, but other than that, I fail to see what was learned that a photo couldn't have accomplished in less time and with less money.

These nutty ideas that teachers get while missing school to attend the so-called "seminars" continue to irritate me. Do they use any common sense at all? If some self-acclaimed "expert" tells them that posters are a good idea, how do they become the main component of the class grade overnight? Or am I the crazy one?

Add "PowerPoint-a-mania" to the list
I would have to add "PowerPoint-a-mania" to the list. This phenomenon you are describing has exploded in districts everywhere I go. I find myself shaking my head at the reverential attitude of school officials when proudly showing off the posters and PowerPoint presentations of their students. In St. Charles, we've had portions of board meetings spent "oohing" and "aahing" over history projects presented on tri-fold poster boards or flashed on overhead computer screens (PowerPoint computer graphic presentations which are nothing more than glamorized poster presentations....and even easier to put together with available clip art). I always want to raise my hand and say, "But where is the accompanying paper that the student has written? Can the student write a coherent 2 or 3 page paper on this topic?"

As far as I can see, Postermania originates from three directions:

  1. The hottest fad around these days has to be Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, even though the theory has no research support. Everyone wants to teach to students' different intelligences and so instead of a written book report, the teacher will give the student the opportunity to either "act out" the book report or "draw" something related to the book. Unfortunately, since writing is always the most difficult option, few students will select that one when given the choice. Posters and PowerPoint presentations enable the teacher to feel as if he or she has adapted the assignment to meet the needs of students who are "kinesthetic learners" or "visual learners." As can be readily seen, a steady diet of these options ensures that a student will not develop those concurrent writing skills. If you visit the ISBE performance assessment site that I wrote about last week, you'll see that making posters and similar projects was encouraged for these types of assessments to enhance sensitivity to individual multiple intelligences .

  2. Another reason for the poster mania comes from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), many who believe that visual literacy is as valid as written literacy. This powerful organization (a heavy proponent of Whole Language) is based out of Champaign at the U of I and as an undergraduate in 1970, I experienced this thrust from its inception.

    My freshman honor's rhetoric class met under the trees on the quad every day without rain. Under the trees we learned about Marshall McLuhan and how the technology of television was reawakening our tribal consciousness, finally counteracting our rigid left brained orientation distorted by learning how to read and write in a linear left-to-write regimen. In sync with this philosophy of how the Guttenburg Printing Press had destroyed our potential, we made poster after poster of concepts covered in the course (also a home movie). Desiring an easy A on my transcript, I quickly discovered that if I bought the largest size of posterboard and the glossiest magazines available I was guaranteed the highest grade.

    The sheer size of the posterboard (impossible to bring to class and still steer my bicycle) along with brightly colored photographs rubber-cemented on it was my key. Collages were easy to make about how at the end of the 1960's an awakening tribal consciousness was arising, supposedly enhanced by television's impact on our neurology. The few times we had to write in that class, I discovered that abandoning capital letters as being too authoritarian warmed my TA's heart and also led to an automatic "A." Naturally, we also journaled, although I don't believed he ever read them. What seemed so innovative them, has now become commonplace.

  3. The third influence on postermania seems to arise from educator's naive attempts to prepare students for the business world. Many educators whose entire careers (indeed their lives) have been spent within the confines of school buildings, have a caricaturized imagine of the business world as consisting of sales reps in front of poster boards or PowerPoint graphic computer presentations (also in front of chart paper taped to the walls). Often their image of this business world embraces teams of five or six individuals presenting the final project. The imagery reminds me how simplistically writers are characterized in the movies. Whenever a movie character is going to write a book, you see the character sitting on the hill at his or her typewriter or laptop perched to start the book. The reality of typing two sentences only to retype them twenty more times, of desperately thumbing through a thesaurus trying to find the right word, of tediously scanning twenty books trying to find the quote that would fit into the text just perfectly, of reordering a clause over and over until the meaning is clear is always omitted as the cumulous clouds slowly move over the neophyte writer in the movies.

    When educators feel as if they are meeting the needs of the business world as they see their students poised in front of the graphic art (and making a great looking poster or PowerPoint presentation is a no-brainer), they look past the importance of the accurate writing, of the importance of a rigorous knowledge base, of homework time spent learning something of more significance than cutting and pasting in front of a television set.

...and a stuffed mole
It's not just posters and computers. When my daughter was in Honors Chemistry class in 10th or 11th grade they were learning about the chemistry term: mole. So, guess what they did. They had a party on "National Mole Day" which corresponded to the mathematical definition of a mole. (I think it's 10^22 or something). Then they had to do a project. One of the acceptable projects was to make a stuffed mole (the animal). That's it. Just make a stuffed mole! Incredible! HONORS HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY! Top that one.

The Nobelists would be so honored
At New Trier High School, one project in science was to make a vanity license plate that would "honor" a Nobel-winning scientist. One student received a poor grade because he hadn't expended as much effort on his artwork as other students. This is in science -- at New Trier!

Family photos become poster fodder
My kids frequently first hit the family photo album and "cut and paste" irreplacable family photos to their poster. Last February we purchased a color scanner believing that it would help in maintaining the preservation of our family history. In late summer it broke. One [project] used up three more family photos before the scanner came back repaired.

The authentic poster
To the above I would add that postermania is a direct result of the authentic assessment element of classroom pedagogy and is related to the idea that projects are much more descriptive of student learning than the oft maligned multiple choice test. Unfortunately, projects are time consuming and bulky to authentically assess, regardless of the complexity of the project, and since no one really can effectively evaluate student learning through most of the projects, posters are really easy to do, with little strain on the teacher, and if they are glitzy enough they make wonderful things to hang on the wall. After all, the modern view is that schools that are awash with evidence of real student work must be doing effective jobs of teaching.

I would submit that most of the posters I have seen can show quite clearly that teaching has taken place, but tend to be very difficult to prove that learning has taken place, especially when the posters are collaboratively developed and electronically researched and printed. The assessment is, in reality, neither effective nor based upon real problems but are mostly artificially done because the students have long since lost the basic skills with which to develop the real learning.

Didn't learn squat ... nice cube, though
I found your post very interesting because it seems to me that my 7th and 10th graders are doing more "poster type" projects than I ever did at that level. My 7th grade daughter recently spent over eight hours on a weekend drawing and coloring six small scenes to go on a 4x4x4 cube. The scenes were to represent events in a book that had not been illustrated in the book itself. This was very time consuming; she did a fantastic job and the end result was very pretty but ultimately I have to ask what was learned in exchange for this much effort. Drawing? Coloring? Rereading the book looking for scenes that could be easily illustrated that hadn't already been done?

I don't think she learned very much about the characterizations or the interactions between the characters or the theme of the book or any of that. She may have gotten that from another part of the class, which is fine but I don't think the craft project taught her very much at all. As such, I don't think it was worth 8 hours of effort or even one.

Postermania and grade inflation
My principal happens to think that projects/posters are creative and a necessary part of the educational process. I did not fully understand the need for the projects, but set out to assign something that would involve research and actually learning something about the topic.

One group of children was assigned a project on the five themes of geography and the others were to do a project on explorers. The assignment was made the first day of school in a letter directed to parents. My directions were explicit and detailed.

Silly me! I actually thought that the projects or the posters were to be graded. Some of the children did a terrific job on their posters, while others clearly waited until the night before the assignment was due and just pasted anything on the paper and brought it to school. It took me many hours to grade the projects. I required students to do research for the projects. I wanted to make certain the posters were accurate and directions followed. Some students received 100 points for their effort and a few others received only 20 points. Almost all students received between 85 to 100 points.

Well, to my surprise I was not supposed to grade these posters! It is just expected that all children receive credit for these posters/projects! Not just, credit though! ONE HUNDRED POINTS! The purpose of the projects is to boost the grade of every student. It really does not matter how well the children do, just that they have attempted something. We cannot penalize a child that is not of the same ability as the brightest child and make him feel badly. It is just important that he brought something, anything to school. My principal told me she was not telling me how to grade, but I should call the parents and just apologize for my ignorance on grading procedures. She said the parents love it when you apologize to them. (I called parents, but did not apologize to them.)

I returned to my classroom and pulled the grades from previous years. Almost every child receives an A or a B for the cycle. I found only one D, six C's and no F's. I do not know how to inflate grades. Is it fair to give everyone an A or a B if they have not worked hard and earned it? How do I justify this act? Do I compromise my values and standards? I have never been expected to do this and I feel physically ill. More importantly, what if the kids that are smart and work really hard for their grades determine that everyone gets an A or B no matter the performance? What if they decide not to work for their grades either?

I feel certain if I do not play the game I will not be rehired next year or get a satisfactory evaluation. Of course, I do not know if I want to be rehired. I will be sending my resume to other school districts in the spring, but I fear they all follow the same rules and guidelines. I think what has really happened is that Mom has returned to work and feels guilty for not having the energy to help the children with school work. When the child brings home an unsatisfactory grade, she transfers that guilt back to the teacher. Every mother I spoke to about the project was a working mother. (I am one too, so I am not just knocking working mothers!) Every mother blamed me for her child's poor performance. It was my fault that her child did not complete the project as directed.

I reported to my classes the next day that I was new to school procedures. I did not know that they should all receive 100 points on their project. I would change their grades to reflect the extra points. I also cancelled all other assigned projects. I cannot see the value of wasting valuable class time on the projects if everyone gets the same grade.

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