I grew up surrounded by beauty.  My mom, an artist, decorated our house with beautiful paintings, photographs, pottery, and knick-knacks. My dad, a gardener extraordinaire, bejeweled our yard with roses, plumeria, succulents, a wide variety of orchids and an ever changing landscape of annual flowers. 

In this setting, I developed a keen awareness of what I considered beautiful. While I did not become an artist, like my sister, who can easily transform the ordinary into something extraordinary, or my brother, a roving photographer, I’ve always secretly believed that the classroom was my canvas.  I began my career in 1989 at Memorial International Baccalaureate Academy in Barrio Logan, an inner city neighborhood of San Diego.  The majority of my students lived in an impoverished, gang-infested neighborhood and spoke limited English.  I knew little about poverty and violence, but I quickly realized that my classroom could be, as Robert Frost has stated about poetry, "a momentary stay against confusion."

With the help of an experienced resource-mentor teacher, I infused my classroom and curriculum with literature that spoke to the experiences of my students--stories by Gary Soto, Luis Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, Anne Frank, Chief Seattle, and believe it or not, Francis Bacon and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I plastered the walls with the words and work that my students wrote in response to and inspired by this literature —poems, storyboards, essays, letters, art.  And I began to collect student exemplars, models of what was beautiful, exceptional work, so that I could show these to future students and they would have a foundation from which to spring forward.  I believed then that my students and I were both doing meaningful, beautiful work.

My collection of students’ beautiful work spans twenty years.  And while I have many models to show students, not all students craft beautiful work.  Assignment after assignment, project after project, year after year, I am perplexed that after going over the standards and showing my students exemplars so many of them continue to turn in less than beautiful work.  “What’s up with that?” I ask myself. 

I have often compared my students to hamsters running on a wheel.  I go over an assignment, explain the criteria, show a model and many of them simply go through the motions, rushing through the work at an alarming rate, not internalizing any of it.  In the midst of this some continually beg the question, “Is this good enough?” Why is it that they do not take control of their own learning?   I am left wondering why some students haven’t internalized the criteria and standards that I have reviewed and modeled. 

I clearly remember an incident that occurred at the end of the year before I began my action research.   As I passed out students’ folders containing all the work they had done over the 10 months we had been together, one of my most accomplished students, Ciara, a young lady who always went above and beyond, brought her folder up to me and said, “Here Mrs. Bechtel, you can keep this.  I don’t want it.”  I was dumbfounded that she did not want to keep this documentation of blood, sweat and tears. Didn’t this work mean anything to her? This reminds me of teacher Ron Berger’s statement:

Schools can sometimes take on the feel of a production ship, students cranking out an endless flow of final products without much personal investment or care.  The emphasis is on keeping up with production, on not falling behind in class work or homework, rather than on producing something of lasting value (2005, p. 37).

When I read teacher Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence I began to understand that many of the tools necessary for creating a culture that values beautiful work were missing in my classroom.  I, too, was perhaps going through the motions.  Ron Berger validates my comparison between students and the hamster wheel when he explains:

When I was a student in public school I turned in final draft work every hour, every day.  Work was generally done in one draft, and we kept cranking it out and passing it in.  Even if we cared about quality there wasn’t much we could do: we needed to get things done and passed in.  One of the first things a school or classroom can do to improve the quality of student work is to get off this treadmill (2003, p.87). 

In the attempt to perhaps make education more equitable, State standards, No Child Left Behind and district scope and sequence directives put an emphasis on coverage, ensuring all students at each grade level will know particular content and will be able to perform specific skills.  This new era of No Child Left Behind coverage is the treadmill Berger makes reference to and this treadmill has deprived my students and I of the creation of meaningful, beautiful work.  In the absence of depth, exemplary work is seldom the result.  While a small percentage of students may accomplish the extraordinary on their first or second draft, this is the exception.  All students need the time and the tools to create exceptional work—even that small percentage. I realized that I needed to get off this treadmill.

       I’ve never lost my belief in the value of beautiful work, but my teaching has focused on the coverage of standards at the expense of spending time to foster the climate and the skills needed to create beautiful work.  I need to recreate the canvas of my classroom.  How can I cultivate a classroom culture where students value beautiful work?  My experience as a graduate student in High Tech High’s Teacher Leadership Program, the research I read, Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence and my administrations’ nod of support reignited this passion.