The Need for Parameters

The other morning, I was half watching Oswald with my kids while we snuggled on the couch: my kids eyes glued to the pre-school program, mine on my Kindle reading up on The Help.    Every so often, I would get distracted and glance up to the TV to watch the odd characters go through their child dilemmas and, as sometimes happens, I had to watch on as the talking penguin, dancing daisy and egg twins competed in a summer sand castle building contest.  By the time I got sucked into the riveting plot, each of the characters was working on their own sand creation.  The penguin had a plan and he wasn’t straying from it.  It was a very precise, perfect cube.  Daisy’s sand structure, on the other hand, was abstract, unique and free (my kind of artist!)  The egg twins – well, I didn’t quite catch what they were going for, but their sand castle was flat, creating a sort of foundation.  Maybe because that was as tall as they could get it.

Oswald, the blue walking, talking, very kind octopus was the judge and of course is friends with all the others.  He marveled at each character’s creations noting how each one exemplified the creator.  (He used those exact words too. hehe  :-p)  I realized his pre-school predicament – how was he going to choose among his friends when they were all working so hard?  But then again, is this only a pre-school predicament?  Don’t we often find ourselves in this situation where we feel students have done their personal best?  And then, we don’t want to reward just one.

How many times have we seen a group of students ALL get awards at the end of a season?  I remember, one year at my end of the year Colorguard banquet, the excitement and anticipation of the trophy ceremony was squashed when every single one of us received, (and I quote) “Most Improved, Most Valuable and Most Outstanding Performance.”  Are you kidding???  That trophy meant nothing.

That same year, same season, our Coach Barb for field hockey recognized all of our accomplishments, but then thoughtfully awarded those who stood out from the crowd.  Sure, they were some of the same kids, but there was also the one or two surprises: The Unsung Hero or The Most Improved Player.  Those trophies meant something.

As I watched Oswald  struggle with how he was going to award just one competitor, I thought about my own classroom when I’ve assigned something and, although the students were working hard, something was missing.  There was a need for a challenge to push students or competitors to reach higher and do something that helps them to grow.  That’s where parameters can come into play.

Parameters may come in the form of a set of rules to play or work by, a rubric to follow or a theme to direct you.  The sand castle making on Oswald was one of those free-form things where the competitors are just told to create instead of being given any direction.  That “blank sheet of paper” is going to make grading or awarding very difficult.  I often like to give my students freedom to create, but when it’s something to do with the curriculum, that freedom needs structure.  We’ve had a lot of posts published on this site about Freedom in Structure – Jazz in the Classroom – When you give structure to an assignment or project, people can become more creative.  So, if given parameters to work within, students’ minds would be more challenged and their work more creative.  Not to mention, it will make the judging or grading a little easier, and let’s face it, if you’re in a competition, there needs to be a winner.

So, how did Oswald choose just one winner?  I’m not sure I want to give it away.  I’ll just say it had something to do with a big wave, combining sculptures and a lot of happy friends.

Enjoy your day.


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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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