The Odd Duck of the Elementary School


I shall begin with a disclaimer:  This is not the beginning and end of my beliefs about teaching and learning.  This is neither the beginning nor the end.  I am the first student in my classroom.  Someday I suspect I will be the first student in my dining room, with a houseful of kids around the table with their noses in books.  Or computers.  And I will be the first student in the backyard, with those kids learning things they absolutely can’t get from books or computers.  Hopefully a lot of time in the backyard, a little time at the dining room table. 

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In case you haven’t noticed, I have been tortured this year.  This year has been difficult, certainly, but that is a separate issue.  I have been tortured by the idea, instinct, knowledge, understanding that I am not giving kids what is best for them.  At the same time, their parents are sending them to school and someone has to teach them.  And I need a job.  I love kids, I love having a job that is so much based upon relationships with fellow humans, why not be a teacher?  So I had two choices:  One, make my peace with this job.  Two, find another job.

It turns out, I don’t want another job.  🙂

Unless that job would be homeschooling my own children.  And that company doesn’t currently have its offer on the table.

So I made my peace with this job.  I said awhile back that there was a “long post about teaching” coming your way.  Here it is.  It’s so long I felt the need to begin with the phrase “I shall.”  🙂  And thus, I shall tell you how I made my peace with classroom teaching and learning!

Task #1:  What do I believe about how children learn?  What is the best way for a child to learn?  What do they need to learn?

I believe the ideal situation for children is unschooling.  That’s the most common label, but it has little to do with what I mean.  Another label for it is life learning.  Or homeschooling with freedom and gusto.  They didn’t need a teacher to teach them how to crawl, or walk, or talk.  If you watch a child who is free to do what he wants with his time, he will learn just as much–if not more–than a child who is in a very controlled environment.  He will learn exactly what he needs to know for his life, plus whatever else he is interested in that might not be absolutely necessary.

Therefore, what each child needs to learn is different.  A neurosurgeon needs to know a lot of specifics about how the nervous system works, I do not.  I need to know that haircuts and manicures don’t hurt because we don’t have nerves in our hair or nails.  I need to that there are more nerves in my fingers than my inner arm, so I should be less afraid of IVs than finger pricks.  I need to know that when my foot falls asleep, it was just some nerve cells not communicating, and if I move around it will get better.  If you wanted to be a neurosurgeon, you would want to know a lot about the nervous system.  More accurately, if you wanted to know all the details you could get your hands on about the nervous system, you might later find that you want to be a neurosurgeon. 

Did I learn more about the nervous system than what I just explained to you?  Yes.  Do I remember it?  No.  Does it hurt anything that I don’t know more?  Not one bit.  In school or not in school, you learn and remember exactly what you need to know, plus whatever connects with you and makes you curious and engaged.  I don’t really need to know the reason why haircuts don’t hurt, I just found it really interesting at the time of learning it. 

I am what we call a constructivist.  I know that children construct their own knowledge, over and over again, through their experiences.  They have to try and test.  They have to have their hands in it.  They have to be free to make “mistakes.”  Nobody is good at something the very first time they touch it.  There are a lot of years of bad sound, wrong notes, and stop-and-start practicing before someone is proficient at an instrument.  There are a lot of concoctions that don’t work before there is a powerful drug that can treat a sick person.  The stuff was there all along, but if Mr. Penicillin hadn’t left the window open and been paying attention, strep throat would be considered a horrible disease.

I believe there is power in the process.  I believe it’s valuable to learn something part way.  I believe that children who want to know if frogs have teeth in the middle of a spelling test harness more powerful learning than children who sit down, shut up, and ace the spelling test.

That unquantifiable “thing” that naturally engages children with learning is often ruined by school. 

Ironic, isn’t it?

I do not care about NCLB.  I do not care about ITBS.  I do not care about BRI, or Mid-Year Math, or Data Wall Running Records, or aggregation of males versus females versus ELL students versus free/reduced lunch students versus the class fish.  I will pay attention to them all, because it is my job, but I do not care.

I care about the child who is right in front of me. 

So let me wander back to the idea of unschooling.  Unschooling is not the same as letting children run wild.  It is letting them run free, and running with them, watching where they are going, and being prepared to help.  It is being the first learner in your home, the first reader, the first experimenter, the first self-teacher, if you will.  It is a balance between being there to help and leaving them alone to learn.  It is being the more knowledgeable person for their goals, or finding someone who is.  It’s about being there to support, but respecting that it is their life to live, even now.  It’s about remembering that you wouldn’t want someone to dictate you, either, and if you are going to teach them the golden rule, you must first follow it.  It is about trusting your child, trusting life and time and experience and whatever else you want to say about what (or Who) is in control of us all, child or adult.

And all of that, I believe is transferable into the classroom.

Task #2:  If I believe that, what about families who send their children to school?

I just deleted a whole bunch of wandering around this subject, because it all boils down to this:  Every single person in this world makes the best choices for their own family.  Every single person’s life is different.  And from the options before them, every single person chooses the best option for their children.  Even if you and I did have the exact same life, we might have differing opinions, and the best choice for you may not be the best choice for me. 

And ever single person has choices in every single situation.

Every parent who chooses my school for their child, does so because it is the best choice for their family.  Every child in front of me in the classroom is there because my classroom is the best place for him or her at this time.

Furthermore, if I choose to work there, then this is also the best place for me, at this time.

Task #3:  What can I do to reconcile the constraints of a classroom with how children learn?  Can I use the situation at hand to create something as close as possible to my notion of “ideal?”

Sometimes school makes me feel claustrophobic, in a metaphoric way.  I feel stuck, closed in, imprisoned, shackled.  I feel like someone is holding my hands, making me do what they say I should do, but that being never has an identity.  My hands are tied by someone whose hands are tied by someone whose hands are tied by…  And we never know who started it all.

The beginning of summer is always joyous because I feel free!  Free to do my own thing.  Free to read and go and do and explore and experience.  Free to wear my frickin’ flip-flops, for crying out loud!  I get it–sort of–but it was a sad, sad day when we were told no more flip-flops allowed at school for teachers. 

Actually, no, I don’t get it, and this is the perfect way to illustrate my point.  Do we need a rule to tell us what to wear?  Is it a safety issue?  Do you not trust that a 28-year-old woman can judge whether or not she is able to safely carry out the requirements of her job in her chosen footwear?  If you can’t chase after your students in flip-flops, don’t wear them.  I can’t chase after my students in high heels.  I’m running out of options.  I’m finding myself, in warm weather, having worn high heels to work, but running around the classroom barefoot for large chunks of time.  Is it modesty?  Flip-flops don’t make me more likely to expose my cleavage, you understand?  Is it professional dress?  So I’m allowed to wear tennis shoes with dress pants…which a lot of teachers do…but not flip-flops with capris?  Why don’t you ban tennis shoes as well?  Why don’t you require high heels on all the women, and ties on all the men?  Do you think I can’t get my students’ respect in flip-flops?  Do you think flip-flops somehow interfere with my ability to teach?

Above all, do you think we should be teaching the students that they can’t make responsible or expressive choices about what to wear?  We let facial piercings close up.  Men remove their earrings at school.  We cover tattoos.  We only dye our hair only colors that hair comes naturally.  I don’t want a tattoo, and I can live without any more piercings, and I don’t really want purple highlights…not really anyway 🙂 …but it is the principle.  I cringe to even think about what would happen if someone decided to do dreads in their hair.

School is a place where conformity is prized, and uniqueness is considered rebellion.  You should hear the comments I get for green smoothies and quinoa.  I get that it’s because I am different from those around me, and we aren’t used to accepting what is different.  I get that I would see the same reaction if I were a banker or a doctor or anything else.  But kids don’t start out that way, and we are teaching it to them.  Just like someone taught it to us.

And yes, I’m wandering back to the point here.  That concept goes for academic learning as well.  The only “right” way to do two-digit addition is to start with the ones column.  I don’t know about you, but when I add in my head, I start with the tens column.  Or I chunk it differently so it’s easier.  Or I start with one number and count on, first by tens and then counting on by the ones that are left over.  Even addition facts:  You can just “know” that 9+5 is 14, but I never did.  Just long enough to pass the test.  What I know is, 9 is really close to 10.  It’s easy to take 1 away from the 5 and put it with the nine, and then you have 10 and 4, which of course is 14.  It all happens in a split-second in my head, but I don’t just “know” 9+5=14.  And I’ve got tons of them, and they all have to do with grouping numbers to make them faster to count.  That’s the strategy that makes sense to me.  I really do tend to be the teacher who wants to know how they got the answer, but I don’t care so much if they did it the same as me, or even if they got the correct answer.  I care if they did it in a workable strategy that they can explain and that makes sense to them.

The way to reconcile the way kids learn best with the way I run my classroom, I think, is to put a priority on choice, on hands-on learning, on child-led projects, and on keeping my eyes on the big picture.  I did all those things successfully for four years when I taught preschool, because the curriculum made it so easy.  I was the odd duck out because I wasn’t fighting the curriculum, or stressed out about what I was being asked to do.

Now, the curricula that I am required to use for first grade is geared towards more teacher-controlled environments.  This year, I have mostly just gone along with what is expected of me, all the while screaming on the inside that it wasn’t what was best for my kids.  I started with the curricula and tried to make the kids fit.  Next year, I plan to start with the kids, and use the curricula.  And I will be the odd duck because I will be challenging the status quo when it comes to how I run my classroom.  What that will look like specifically, I don’t know. 

Here is what I know:

Kids learn like they breathe.  With or without me, it will happen.  {That’s what I’m going to title my book someday: Kids Learn Like They Breathe.  Don’t steal my idea.  🙂 }

My role, as the teacher, is to set up an environment with awesome materials, engaging routines, and tons of fun ideas.  And to lead the way in building a community and creating enthusiasm.  And then back off and see what the kids do with it all.

I can do better than I did this year.

My next tasks:

Read more about unschooling and eclectic homeschooling.  If I’m so obsessed with the idea, I might as well learn more!  It may very well help me in my classroom.

Reread Starting From Scratch by Steven Levy.  (I think of that story as the unschooling of a classroom.)

Plan my biggest priorities to focus on for next year.  Become very clear on why I think what I think, what research backs it up, etc.  We are a district with a huge foundation in “research-based practice.”  There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but if I’m going to bring a “radical” idea into my classroom (such as doing away with rewarding and punishing), then I’d better have a truly rational foundation.  “I just know this is the right thing to do” is all I need, but it won’t hold up to the scrutiny of the rest of the staff.

I am destined to be an odd duck immersed in an ocean of conformity.  I am slowly falling in love with that theme in my life.  It is common people who live uncommon lives that appeal to me.  It is an unconforming teacher with a method to her madness that truly makes a difference.

It was a man who challenged the status quo, loved the outcasts, worked miracles that made people think he was crazy, and peacefully accepted his own death who saved us all.  If I follow him, then my destiny to be an odd duck in the world is no surprise.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    May 02, 2010 @ 07:03:43

    Your ideas sound a lot like what I know of Montessori, which isn’t much. Also your statement that families do the best they can for their own kids is pretty much what you learned from us.


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