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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Rethinking Schools on Screen: Why the way we portray education in media matters

Recently, my husband and I were playing “Art School” with our ten year old daughter.  She would draw an exemplar, we were asked to replicate it, and then she graded each one.  My husband is an artist; I am not.  On our first picture, a grilled cheese sandwich, he received a “B” and I received an “F-.”  It was fun, and we had some laughs and then I thought, “How does she even know what a B is? Or an F?”

Our daughter attends school in Webster, NH, which adopted standards-based grading years ago. She has never earned a grade on an A-F or 100-point scale.  Her teachers report out on her skills using a spectrum rather than one arbitrary letter or number per subject.  So, I asked her how she even knew about letter grades.  Her reply? “TV, movies, and books.”

This got me thinking.  What if writers in the children’s entertainment industry started to change the way they talk about school? What would the conversation look like when a student came home from school with a report card stating they hadn’t met all their competencies yet, rather than a report card with C’s, D’s and F’s? What if television shows showed a student-led conference rather than a parent-teacher conference?  What if we saw the slacker student working hard on a final project rather than cramming for a three hundred question final exam so he could demonstrate proficiency?  In these classic situations, would we lose the humor? Would we miss the moral?  Would the story still make sense? While most plot lines are not school-centric, I feel plot lines themselves would be unaffected.

Now, I understand that the way schools operate is not fascinating to everyone, but I’m not asking for a show about school.  All I’m saying is that schools are different today than they were twenty years ago, and those who write to entertain families and children could really do a service to today’s schools by changing the conversation about what schools should – and sometimes do - look like. For those who are ahead in the competency-based game, it would be great if art could imitate life a little more. And for those who are a little behind, it would be great to show them the near future.

Since earning my “F-” in grilled cheese sketching, I’ve been paying close attention to how school is portrayed on the screen and in books. I know some small changes could yield some big shifts in the way children and families see school.


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