Sunday, September 25, 2011

What kind of change? You tell me.

So in the spirit of Corners (and if you haven't read it, it's blogged below, from the bottom to the top), what would Shelley do about the American public school system?

Fasten your seat belt, because as reasonable and naive as Shelley may appear on the surface, she is still at heart a radical for social justice, in her own way.

By now, Shelley would be a teacher, probably of troubled teens.  From her very tiny window which is a classroom, she would see a thing that extra high-uppity-ups in the school system try very hard not to see:  she would see the place where the grinding gears of the federal, state, and district systems meet and mandate her to death, such that she cannot respond, for the very control of it all, to the daily small things that make or break her students.  She would see what Hermann Hesse wrote about ever so long ago in his book "Beneath the Wheel."

Sigh - some things never change.

And how would Hesse describe the purpose of schooling as he knew it in 1906 Germany?  Here he described his experience:

"What would many happy citizens and trustworthy officials have become but unruly, stormy innovators and dreamers of useless dreams, if not for the effort of their schools? In young beings there is something wild, ungovernable, uncultured which first has to be tamed. It is like a dangerous flame that has to be controlled or it will destroy. Natural man is unpredictable, opaque, dangerous, like a torrent cascading out of uncharted mountains. At the start, his soul is a jungle without paths or order. And, like a jungle, it must first be cleared and its growth thwarted. Thus it is the school's task to subdue and control man with force and make him a useful member of society, to kindle those qualities in him whose development will bring him to triumphant completion."

Beneath the Wheel, 1906
Right in the spirit of No Child Left Behind!

What would Patrick Henry think of No Child Left Behind?  But never mind, I digress.

From her classroom, Shelley would see that there are two types of students in public school - students who "bring their own," and everyone else.

The first type of student - or the one who would have learned anyway - was taught to read at home at an early age.  This student loves reading because she first read in the warmth of her mother's, or daddy's, or nana's lap; and has now acquired many models of language which allow her to speak and write fluently, because she has continued to read so much, as is her habit.  She is allowed to take richly, elegantly designed Advanced Placement courses (at least, better designed by comparison) because she is successful.  She was successful on her first day of kindergarten, has received positive strokes for her success ever since (plus the reading and conversing lessons at home, as well as piano), and therefore is pleasant to teach and earns A's easily.  This student never has to repeat classes because of failure, and therefore has time for every gram of enrichment the system has to offer, and therefore the greatest relief from regulation because most of her coursework flies high above the radar.

The rest of the students are students who do not arrive reading as well, or as much; or who are just regular everyday kids whose parents both work till all they can do is lie down when they get home; or who have a single mom or dad, or are a foster child or an abused or neglected child, or any other factor that prevents them from achieving a seamless development of internal structure and personal self control.  Both of these, structure and self control, are rare gifts for the young in this day and age.  I believe they can be taught in public schools by allowing students to develop passion for what they do and a vision for their own future.  But that's another story.

If students are of this latter type - in other words, average kids - they will be treated to classes that are chock full of required learning standards.  These standards will have been prepackaged in one or more purchased instructional programs, which must by federal, state and local mandate be "implemented with fidelity."  This means you have to do it all, and in order, whether this package seems to be producing astute users of the content or not.  Whether or not students are astute users will not be tested, at least not until the Common Core comes out (that might be a whole other blog, if you don't get bored).  For now - that means today, for your kid - the standards will instead be tested by multiple choice, and therefore must be taught in a fashion which results in the proper selection of prepackaged answers.

Believe it or not, most teachers rise above this by virtue of the fact that they "work in" richness and elegance to the program anyway.  For those who won't, or don't know how, or who just don't come made that way, the only way to learn this skill of "working it in" is in proximity with other teachers who have "it," and who are patient and caring enough to share "it."

As higher-ups consider this fact, it is not lost on them that their basic program is extremely dry and therefore does not result in retention of knowledge or depth of learning.  So locally, teachers are mandated to include continual incidents of additional prepackaged "engagement" strategies called "pair-share," or "foldables," or "checking for understanding," all in a specific prescribed manner.  Observers should be able to see "pair-share," "foldables," or "checking for understanding" going on, whenever they enter the classroom, whether it is a common sense time for such a thing or not.  These strategies are expected to enliven the program, and create "sticky" places in the students' brains for the massive number of strategies they are learning to make a nest.

Some of us - teachers - were chatting in the hallway the other day.  We believe that since we have dramatically increased  the use of "pair-share" and "foldables," our students seem more frenetic, less calm, less able to bring their minds around to focus on a concept with any depth.  Hmmm.  Who would listen to that?  This year, probably no one.  There's something more that's needed - we know it.  But we don't have time to look for it, what with all the folding and pairing and checking and whatnot.

So what is the moral of this story?  This system - the big, sprawling American public school system - is alive, and it has a DNA.  And it's DNA is programmed for CONTROL, unless you are a privileged child.  This control ripples from the federal level and the state level down through the local level.  The system is therefore locked, at all levels.  Control is our practice.  Fidelity is our mantra.  There is no escape unless something very large happens that upends the whole thing.

What would Shelley do?  Shelley is honing her craft, and wants to be a professional teacher who develops students' minds.  And she would have no idea what to do, because indeed it seems unstoppable.  But she would sure start asking questions.  So here we go.

How do we change the school system so that ALL STUDENTS CAN LEARN?  How do we empower teachers to make learning happen the ONLY place it ever happens - in the CLASSROOM, not in Washington, not in Sacramento, and not in the Board Room?

What has to change?  You tell me.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have all the answers- but all the testing, testing, testing that goes on is definitely NOT the answer! Kids today spend so much of their 180 days in school taking tests- or learning how to take test. Our mastery test for 5th grades- is 10 days long (about 1 hour a day). That is ridiculous. Children could be learning and exploring topics that interest them instead!