Thursday, March 29, 2012
A Mirror Held Up to Our System of Education
When I first arrived for work at an elementary school in the late summer of 2007, the thing that surprised me were the lines. In all of my life, I had never fully recognized the pronounced importance of an ability to walk in this specific way, one child behind the other, in order that a system designed to educate 500 of these creatures might function. At the time, I felt slightly as if I had been tumbled into a video documentary on the societal stifling of the Individual. I quickly learned, though, that 500 children allowed to prance the halls like merry goats, singing loudly by open classroom doors would not a tenable situation make. I began, in fact, within the months that followed, to experience enormous agitation at the sight of lines that were out of order, lines that an adult failed to properly constrain, loud lines. However, somehow the lines–the necessary, quiet, orderly lines stuck with me. Maybe this is why. Children–and the systems we use to instruct them–hold up a mirror, which if we dare look in, might show us who we really are and what we really value.
The mirror says we value order more than we say we do.
I am confused sometime. I am confused about worksheets. The way that some parents speak about them you would think that they were talking about crack pipes or dead rats. On the other hand, I have this child that is, perhaps dysgraphic, or for some other reason cannot make his vast mental landscape confine its wealth to the small line where a word or sentence must be written on his first grade worksheet. His work is pretty crappy, but he is capable of an ingenuity and imagination, a sort of corvine-like facility with his thought life that won't translate to the damn worksheet. It makes me hate worksheets. I want to gather them in a great pile and burn them like the library of Alexandria. Honestly though, how the Hell would would we be expecting all our teachers to teach without them–lessons aligned to standards, appropriate to each of twenty-five children in her class, all composed with the eight or so hours of planning time she has a week for teaching every subject she is responsible for? We don't give enough time for a teacher to thoughtfully create dynamic lessons, we don't provide materials that support it, we think it can be tossed off.
The mirror says we think education is a recipe or a science, when it is really an art.
I am also confused about standards. It keeps landing for me like this. I am 5'6. " Perhaps the standard for my age, decided on by legislators, is that I be 5'8." I'm not. I'm just not. There is so much wrong with an education that is focused entirely on standards that it makes my head spin. I don't think you can throw them out entirely. I actually think that human beings become lazy quite easily, that we are happy to sit around, chewing gum and letting the kids have extra free time while we check our email. If we don't have a goal, a target, a ribbon to run through, then we often putz around. But the standards need to be based on each individual child. If you are 5'4" now, you might reasonably gain two inches and be 5'6" by the end of the year. That growth should be celebrated. A sixth grader who begins the year reading at third grade level and ends it at fifth should be congratulated. Within the system we have now, he is going to feel "low" no matter what. A fourth grade special ed. kid who I worked with one year was rewarded at the end with a certificate that said he had made "the most progress in creative writing," something of which he was extremely proud, but he was later confused and disappointed that he still had to attend summer school. "I thought I made the MOST progress, Ms. Adams!" How do you fix that situation? How do you even answer that question authentically?
The mirror says we want sameness, however much we say we celebrate diversity.
I am confused about what we are teaching. My child's sixth grade book report instructions read like the instructional manual for a washing machine. If one could only understand all the elements of fiction–identify the rising and falling action and regurgitate them into a bland essay, surely one could say one has mastered English. The writing he is taught is terrible. It is as if art were taught by instructing students to sketch a person, using the crosshatched lines artists compose to define space, and then leave the lines in place on the finished product. The writing is all schema. It lacks breath. Last Sunday, I stood in a room with four middle school students, two of whom are actors, while they were instructed, in pairs, to devise their own short skits illustrating a bias scenario that was given them on slip of paper.
"Do you want us to read it?"
"No, I want you to create a skit. Make it up."
"I don't understand."
And this went on for five minutes or so. Although incredibly bright children, all of them, they were more or less incapable of taking a known thing and translating it into something original.
The mirror says we value skills, but not knowledge or ingenuity.
My observation is that this isn't personal. This isn't specific to a classroom, to a school, to a district. It is suggestive of a society that has certain values.
The mirror says we are losing our way.
Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License