T Sale's Blog

Monday, September 10, 2007

In Honor of the Great Harlan Ellison®, Whose Inimitably Titled Stories Include “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”

I see we are going to use “butcher paper” at our next PLC meeting.

And I must scream.

I’m beginning to think that butcher paper has come to represent all that’s wrong with school reform. To wit:

Where does it go? We write on it beautifully with scented markers, inscribing our deepest thoughts about the future of education, and then…what? Probably, because our school no longer has a recycling program, the butcher paper gets wadded up and stuffed in a trashcan. The alternative is equally disheartening: is someone saving all that butcher paper? Do they fold it up and store it somewhere? (I picture the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Either way, I wonder, when was the last time that something you wrote on butcher paper affected a student’s learning?

Isn’t writing on big sheets of butcher paper a little outmoded? I’m among the first to lament the loss of low-tech, high-touch means of communicating, but do we need to use butcher paper every time? The 21C group has taught us how to use GoogleDocs and wikis. When I develop norms with my classes

(and by the way, I see we get to talk about norms again, as if we haven’t done so for every new group we start, as if the norms aren’t always the same, as if…)

I have a student type on the computer while his/her classmates contribute their ideas, and we can all see it projected on the screen and then save the brainstorming as a document without having to copy it from butcher paper. We are talking about teaching our students how to use RSS feeds and we’re still writing on butcher paper.

And who else calls it “butcher paper,” anyway? I suspect that only teachers use the term “butcher paper.” When I mentioned our excessive use of “butcher paper” to my wife, who is a 30-year government employee, she looked at me blankly until I compared it to the paper that comes off flip charts; then she nodded. (Every profession has their “butcher paper.”) I bet even butchers don’t call it “butcher paper”; even though, at Sunflower Market, butchers still wrap meat in paper (after first ensconcing it in plastic), I suspect they just call it “paper” (in much the same way people in China probably call Chinese food “food”).

Butcher paper is our security blanket. As long as we have butcher paper, we remain comfortable with the process that we repeat over and over to assure ourselves that, hey, at least we’re doing something. We establish norms, unfurl the butcher paper, report what we did in our turbo meetings, and repeat the process until the next new reform takes hold.

I say, put butcher paper back in the hands of the students, where it can do some good.

(Harlan Ellison®, for those who are still reading, is a short story author who’s so irascible that he copyrighted his own name. He’s usually considered a science fiction author, though he himself denies the label. You can read about him in, of course, Wikipedia. We read “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” in my SF class; it’s about a rebel who disrupts a future society that punishes people for being late. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is about a self-aware computer that hates humans. Ellison also wrote one of the best original Star Trek episodes ever, The City on the Edge of Tomorrow. I don’t think he used butcher paper.)