Get your soapboxes ready, it’s the first Friday night of the school year! 🙂
First, let me summarize my life over the past couple of weeks. Last week, I spent many hours in my classroom, with my new coteacher, putting things in order. This week, contract days started on Monday. Monday and Tuesday, mostly spending time in the classroom with my new coteacher. Wednesday, kick-off event for all however-many-thousand teachers and other employees in the morning, work time in the afternoon. Last week was mostly about the stuff of the classroom–tables, shelves, materials, where to put everything. This week has been mostly about the class of the classroom–planning how we’re going to do this. Thursday was the first day of school, today was day two.
This week has been mostly miserable for me. My start-of-the-school-year anxiety has been over the top, compared to past years. Part of it, of course, is that I’m teaching a different grade. A big, big part of it is the business of coteaching. Working out differences in personality and beliefs about teaching has been killer. But another part, a part that I think was triggered by having to define and defend my beliefs about teaching, is that my beliefs about how kids learn don’t really fit with the typical elementary school classroom.
I believe that there is a sort of threshold in the brain between being so bored you think you can’t go on, and going on. I think having time and freedom is essential to brain development in children, as much as is safe for their age. I think they should be given as much physical freedom of space as their level of responsibility will allow, with minimal adult input. They should be encouraged to decide what they will do with their time. In my opinion, that is so important to the development of high-level skills like problem solving. In case you haven’t noticed, elementary classrooms are pretty much vacant of the freedom to get bored and decide what to do.
I believe a system of rewards devalues the thing that is being rewarded. Should read because I, the teacher, will give you a prize? Should you read because I will come around the classroom and tell you you’re doing a good job? Or should you read because there is some intrinsic value in the reading itself? If I reward and praise you, I am teaching you to rely on me. I am relying on the value of the rewards and praise. If you don’t care what I think, and you aren’t interested in what’s in the treasure box, my method of motivating you is going to fail. If I instill in you the idea that there is value in reading, and I provide you with a choice of books that are at your level and geared to your interests, and if I leave you to it and stay out of the way, you learn to rely on your own self-monitoring. If you choose a book for your own purposes, it’s your own motivation, not mine. This opinion stands for behavior, as well. Should you refrain from hitting your classmate because I think it’s wrong? Wouldn’t it be better if you thought it were wrong? It doesn’t really matter what I think. If you think it’s okay, you’ll only refrain from hitting while you’re in my presence. I am much more interested in what you (the student) think, because that’s what guides your choices all the time, not just in my classroom.
I might light some fires with this one, but I believe that television is evil when it comes to brain development. Learning requires interacting with the concept, idea, material, etc. No amount of Dora will teach a preschooler to speak Spanish. Sorry. And television has this strange quality that it seems to go right into the brain without a pause to evaluate what you think about what you saw. If you see two people yelling at each other in the mall, it makes you uncomfortable and you want to stay away. If you see it on t.v., it doesn’t evoke that reaction. For some reason, we don’t automatically stop and think about what we see on t.v. It bothers me that I learned more about sexual morals from television than I did from my parents, because my parents were not silent or laissez-faire on the topic. The things depicted in fictional and reality television…sex, violence, even littler things like rudeness and selfishness. It makes me worry even more about kids who don’t have adults talking with them about these issues.
And yet more fires…I believe that caffeine and sugar and processed foods do wonky things to the brain, and have no place in a brain that is still forming. And that should light the biggest fire of all, because you all know that I am a sugar junky, and I sacrafice sleep and replace it with coffee, and I eat things like tater tots and pop tarts, right along with my green smoothies and hummus. So let’s agree that this is an opinion, and I am definitely being a hippocrite. And let’s understand that if I do have children, I hope to instill a value of balance along with nutrition, in other words, sometimes pop tarts are okay as long as you’re drinking your green smoothie. 🙂
I believe kids learn best when they initiate the inquiry. “I’m the teacher and I know you should learn this” is not a very powerful motivation. Without wanting to learn, we learn nothing. If our motivation is to stay out of trouble, to please the teacher or our parents, we learn very little. If our motivation is to figure something out, answer a question we have, or to make ourselves better at something, we can learn quite a lot. Nobody needs to teach (on purpose) a baby how to crawl or walk or talk. In a perfect world, no one would need to teach a 5-year-old how to read or a 7-year-old how to add two-digit numbers, or a 15-year-old how to find the length of the side of a right triangle when given the other two sides, for that matter. In a perfect world, kids would have the freedom and time and adult support to figure those things out as they needed to. Sometimes they would discover these things just as though they were the first person to discover it. Many times they would figure out how to find out, who to ask, where to look. The problem with this imperfect world is that we don’t trust the natural learning process. We don’t trust that every kid will learn to read, and we don’t trust that they can do it without us forcing it down their throats. Also, we are all (most of us) products of the traditional teacher/student situation, so we don’t act like we would if we were still natural learners. All a child needs to learn to read is to constantly see adults read, have books read to him whenever he wants, and have his questions encouraged and answered. This is possible in our imperfect world…I’m living proof of that. But learning concepts related to trigonometry, algebra, calculus, history, sociology, biology, physics, chemistry? Not many of us could be constantly seen using all of those paths of knowledge and skills by our children, and not many of us could answer questions related to all of them. We have “learned” them, placed them in the proper file in our brain, (aka, “high school calculus class”), and immediately forgotten them, never to be accessed or used again.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, anyone can function just fine in the world without knowing one bit of calculus. It’s just evidence that we are no longer natural learners. I don’t think that’s something that “just happens” when you grow up. It is my opinion that school, and the culture that requires formal education, has beaten the natural learner out of us. There are a few exceptional people who are able to retain their natural curiosity throughout school, but I think they are few and far between. More often, I think there are people who can go out into the world and reconnect with their natural desire to learn.
I can’t wait to have children, because I would love to do homeschooling or unschooling! This is, of course, if I’m able to stay home with them when the time comes. (Also, if I get married, and if I have children. God’s business.) Since I have lost a lot of my natural learner qualities, my plan would be to “let them go” as long as I can, to unschool unless they need more. If I do “homeschool,” it will be with the child leading the materials, not the other way around. And eventually, I would want the parents to make a joint decision with the child if formal high school, or a few certain classes, would be right for him, based on what he’s interested in and what he wants to do. I think it would be quite a culture shock for a homeschooled child to enter a high school biology class, and a culture shock for the other students in the class as well. They’re so numbed to learning by that point, and he would be so open and curious. But if he was truly interested in biology, and wanted to know more than I could teach him, and decided he wanted to take the class, he’d learn a ton, despite those differences. Not to mention, he would learn from those differences as well! And, if he was to a point in his maturity where he knew he wanted to go to a certain college or go into a certain field of post-secondary education, he might decide that full-time high school is the way to go.
The bottom line is, the skills and knowlege needed to function as a happy and productive member of society are within a parent’s ability to teach, if they so desire. The only motivation the child needs is contact with the real world. This is how we buy things we need, therefore, I want to learn about money. And banks. And how to drive. This is how I can build a tree fort that doesn’t fall down, therefore, I need to learn about physics. And geometry. And tools. Etcetera. Anything else, wanting to be a doctor, a musician, a mechanic, or a librarian, is up to each person as they grow into adulthood. Nobody, homeschooled or not, thinks they can be a doctor without learning a lot about biology, chemistry, etc. Nobody thinks they can be a musician without seeking out the most skilled musicians they can to teach them. We realize that our lives are a journey, and we make the choices we need to accomplish our goals. A future doctor knows she doesn’t need to learn to play the oboe in order to become a doctor. So, in making choices to accomplish her goal of being a doctor, finding a good oboe teacher wouldn’t be one of her choices. Maybe she just wants to learn to play the oboe for fun, and then she might be looking for an oboe teacher, along with getting into a good medical university. At any rate, once we learn what we need to be happy and productive members of the community, our path is up to us.
So, one of the reasons I was having a hard time this week was this thought that was planted long ago, and brought to light on Wednesday at our big kick-off brunch thing. The superintendent read a quote (Slaven, Madden, Dolan, & Wasik, 1996):
If we truly believed that every child could learn under proper circumstances, we would be relentless in the search of those circumstances.
As the day went on, I wanted nothing more than to run as far away from public education as I could. Because I do truly believe that every child can learn under the proper circumstances. No quote, no motivational speech by a superintendent is needed to convince me of that. The circumstances I was preparing for my first graders weren’t them.
But the kicker is the rest of the quote:
If we truly believed that all schools could ensure the success of all children, then the failure of even a single child would be cause for great alarm, and immediate, forceful intervention.
Hmm. I don’t believe that schools can ensure the success of all children, because there are small-ish things that can screw it up, otherwise known as what happens to the child between the hours of 3:30 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. And, there is one big-ish thing that might be highly overlooked: choice. Hard as we might try, we actually can’t force learning down a child’s throat. If a child is making a choice to reject a teacher’s teaching, try as you might to coerce him into making another choice, you can’t always do that. He is a person with free will, as much as I am.
So my anxiety on Wednesday centered around the thought: If I don’t believe that school is the best circumstances for children, what the hell am I doing here? If I wouldn’t send my kids to school in the ideal circumstances, if I think this version of learning is so far away from natural learning, then why would I join the cause??? The funny thing is, if I weren’t a teacher, I’m not sure I would have these strong opinions about how kids learn best. But you can see my conflict. When I taught preschool, I was working with a curriculum that was very open and child-led. It satisfied all my needs to allow kids to get bored, to allow kids to initiate the inquiry. It was a blast, and the kids learned so much so happily. To do that with a class of first-graders might get me fired!
Thursday was the first day of school, and the first day of school is always crazy, fast, difficult, and with a touch of I don’t want to come back tomorrow! I will say, the first day of first grade was much easier than the first day of preschool! They’ve done this “school thing,” the standing in line, the raising their hands. Preschoolers have no clue about that kind of stuff. But it still had a shade of miserable for me. To be expected, if you ask me. But today, the second day of first grade, oh my! It was almost too much fun! 🙂 I am so excited for the random school day about two or three weeks from now when I suddenly realize it’s gotten easier. I can’t wait until five or six weeks from now, when we are so firmly settled into our routines and expectations, and I suddenly see the progress someone has made in their learning.
That’s why I am a teacher — because watching kids learn is awesome. I don’t ever feel like I do it on purpose…I give them the right situation, the right materials, the right environment, and it just happens. I can’t teach a child any more than I can grow a leaf. All I can do is provide water and sunshine. (And maybe we should wait and see how my houseplants do before we use the plant metaphors…) And the thing is, I don’t have enough say in their lives to provide what I believe is the best learning circumstances. I take children who have never been bored, who thrive on reward and punishment, who watch t.v. more hours a week than they spend in school, who eat nothing but tater tots and pop tarts, and who can’t remember how to be curious. And I take an educational system that dictates what should be learned when, and how, and by whom. And that is what I have. And I do the best I can with what I have in this situation. Maybe someday I’ll do something radical in the classroom, like Steven Levy did and documented in his book Starting From Scratch. Or maybe I’ll eventually go back to preschool and enjoy the freedom of the curriculum there. Or maybe I’ll feel this conflict all the time until I one day have my own children, and leave public education behind to focus solely on them. In the mean time, I think I’ll go back to school on Monday. 🙂
(Whew, how’s that for a 45-minute Friday night soapbox rant! Did it take you as long to read it as it took me to write it???)