Creating Community and Encouraging Academic Achievement through Art and Craft
Richmond High School is an urban school in a city that has one of the highest crime rates in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like several urban high schools throughout the country, educators continue to look for new ways to enable students to improve their academic performance, especially in mathematics. At the beginning of each year, teachers and administrators discuss the California Standards Test (CST) results from the previous year. The CST is not the SAT, so it does not get a student into the college of his or her choice. It is not the Exit Exam, so students don’t need it to graduate. It doesn’t affect their grades. Although it affects a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and its Academic Performance Index (API) and consequently its funding, there are very few teenagers who actually give these matters much thought. As a result, our students don’t necessarily put forth their best effort on the CST. Getting our students to achieve in mathematics is especially challenging.
Schools typically address this problem by compelling teachers to spend additional hours in professional development and to volunteer their time in tutoring programs. This occurs after long days of planning, faculty meetings, doing adjunct duties, correcting assignments and working in overcrowded classrooms. Math coaches are hired; special programs abound; all in an effort to improve the students’ academic performance. After all is said and done, there is still one problem. None of these programs necessarily motivate the students to take mathematics more seriously, do their homework, or to put forth any real effort on the Mathematics CST. All of the teachers and administrators are working harder, but what about the students? What would actually motivate a teenager to make the effort to score proficient or higher on this test? I got bored of the same types of strategies year after year, and wanted to come up with a new and different solution, one that would get the students on board. I thought about this constantly. I’ve always felt that a large part of the achievement gap has to do with academic and social disconnects between the students and the school itself. Sometimes it is hard to feel like a community in an institutional setting. Somehow, there had to be a way to bring humanity back into the entire educational process.
One day, I was on my way to class wearing my crazy fish hat just for fun. I ran into a couple of soccer players who declared, “Wow! That’s raw!” One of them asked me to make him one. I told him that it takes a lot of time to knit a fish hat. “But I’ll pay you!” he said. At that point, I told him that a hat like this is not for sale. He would have to win one by scoring proficient or higher on the Mathematics CST. My hours knitting a fish hat would cost him some hours studying for this exam. That seemed like a fair exchange.
I told the story to my knitting group, the East Bay Knitters, who declared, “What a great idea!” and proceeded to turn what was once just an isolated challenge into a full blown project. They wanted to knit hats for everyone who scored proficient or higher on the Math CST. Before I knew it, these fabulous women had offered to knit some of these hats with me so that I would not be overwhelmed with too much of a good thing! We initially estimated that we could produce 30 hats. Since we were just trying something out, we would limit our prizes to geometry students. I planned to have students color in a fish pattern and write something about themselves on a form. I would then take these forms to my knitting group. Knitters could select one of the student’s colored patterns and fill out a response form stating, “_______________ has decided to knit this fish hat for you with the understanding that you will put in the same amount of time in your studies of math.” The knitter could also write encouragement or share something about her career with her student. This suddenly became a way to bring communities together and to show Richmond High School students that we’re interested in their success.
Later that evening, I received an email from Ellen Graves, the owner of K2tog in Albany, California, where we knit. Her support was invaluable. She proceeded to expand the project to the knitting community at large. She even put one of her employees in charge of creating a fish hat display. The pro-FISH-iency campaign was up and running. I went to my school administrator to see how many students scored proficient last year so we could figure out how many hats we’d need. I found out that 84 people scored proficient last year –and that became our new goal. Ellen got the word out in her K2tog newsletter. The knitting community really got into this; the hats started rolling in! We kept a “Fish Count” in the shop window. Things became really colorful. At first, fish hats were hanging from the ceiling and were placed on walls throughout the shop. As the number of fish hats increased, the K2tog people became even more innovative and created the wall of fish.
One day, a knitter came by to show her friend this amazing wall display. Understanding the implications of this project, she volunteered her time, effort, and resources to plan and ensure the success of Richmond High School’s first Math CST ProFISHiency Celebration. Gayle McLaughlin, the Mayor of Richmond was one of my honored guests. Benjamin Steinberg, founder of ipivoted.org also attended. This organization sponsors students who need funding for a college education. Dale Ogar and several members of the knitting community met with our students. On the day of the celebration, Helen Sesser and I played a taiko drum selection entitled “Takinabori” –a song about a fish who struggles up a waterfall known as the Dragon Gate and thus becomes a dragon. It was a tribute to all of the students who struggled and successfully scored proficient on the Mathematics CST, and an expression of gratitude to all of the people who contributed their time and energy to make the event successful.
The students were very excited about receiving their fish hats. As we called their names, you could see the anticipation on their faces as they eagerly awaited their turn to select their unique awards. The following day was fun. Several “fishes” were spotted on campus. In the afterMATH (get it?), students contacted me to find out how they could “score” one of these hats. They are a hot commodity (which is what I had hoped for). Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors all know they have a chance to win a fish hat this spring. Its message of perseverance, strength, and community touches both students and knitters in a way that only arts and crafts can. Thanks to the creativity of all those who participated in the celebration this year and to those planning to participate in the next one, I expect to see even greater numbers of students achieving a score of proficient or higher on the next Mathematics CST.