The Chinese Fire Drill

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Perfect School, Part III

My Perfect School, Part III

Chapter 4: Why Our Teachers are Different

When I was a young teacher, I had students shoot baskets with Nerf balls...yes, that's right...Nerf balls because I was trying to “enthuse” them about grammar. The truth is, I was doing no such thing. I was simply wasting time and money. My students left that class every bit as unable to label the parts of speech in a sentence as they did before I attempted to “inspire” them.

During a faculty meeting years ago, one our colleagues was demonstrating the difficulty many students have with reading comprehension by having us read a passage from Descartes' Discourse on Method. I distinctly remember the challenge I faced looking at the European philosopher's archaic syntax and word choice.  I also remember that several of us, all equally like-minded and motivated by our curiosity, dove into the passage and furiously made our best efforts to transcribe it.  When we pulled our heads up from our papers, we were disappointed to discover that the conversation had moved on without us.  It turned out, that a transcription wasn't necessary...just the point.  While that was all well and good, I remember that one of my colleagues laughed off his ignornace of the passage almost proudly admitting that he didn't understand what any of it meant.  Even if the passage was too difficult for him to understand, where was the curiousity?  Where was the desire to know?  The colleagues I most respect are those who, when faced with a concept that throws them, obsess over it until they have processed it and learned something from it.  There are several of us who think like this in our school system, but we often feel ostracized rather than respected because our curiosity often seems to get in the way of the single-minded approach to education, namely: "fill out this form", "write this mission statement", "organize this data", "turn this paperwork into the state."
Why the disparity? Why do so many students always say a few years after graduation that college is nothing like high school? Is that really okay?
Part of the reason is that public school teachers are forced to take overrated education classes. Worse yet, education departments are theoretical distractions to what really matters: knowledge. I don't write this as a measure of support for various politicians hell-bent on dismantling education departments across the nation; I write this because my own experience with education departments has been, for the most part, one that has left me unimpressed. The general attitude among these college enclaves is that they'll take any student and make him a teacher, regardless if he demonstrates repeatedly along the way a dazzling propensity for incompetence. Additionally, education departments seem less interested in teaching practical skills such as “paper grading 101” and instead inundate their students will pages of reading and hours of discussion on educational theory and rhetorical debate. As long as these students have taken enough courses in their specific discipline and can demonstrate mastery in their subject, great. The problem, however, is that when most of us start our careers, we are not masters of our discipline. We had to split our time between course work in our specific field and those aforementioned education courses. The result is that we do know a lot about our field (although not as much as our counterparts teaching at the college level) but we also spend less time focusing on content in the classroom and more time wallowing in “gamesmanship.”

Gimmicks and tricks don't make students want to learn. Knowledge and enthusiasm does. When kids, or anyone for that matter, find themselves around someone euphorically interested in the subject they are talking about, that excitement becomes contagious, and the group leans closer to hear more.
For those reasons, My Perfect School will be less interested in hiring “licensed” teachers and much more interested in hiring EDUCATED and CURIOUS people (we also encourage our teachers to earn PhDs, and we'll make that investment worth it, too). We want people so passionately interested interested in their subject matter that they soak themselves in it like pickles in juice (and thus one day grow up and avoid writing awful cliches).

Chapter 5: A Better Idea for the School Day

Would you go shopping for automobile at an Amish buggy shop?  Would you settle for a backpack-style, World War II era Motorola crank phone instead of a Droid or an iPhone?  We wouldn't even consider such options, except, every time we send our kids to high school, that's pretty much what we're doing.  John Dewey designed the basic framework that still dominates the "modern" school almost 130 years ago.  How many businesses successfully use a 150-year-old model and make as few alterations as possible?  This topic alone, generates and plays such a profound role in the frustrations that most teachers, students, and parents have with schools today because, in my experience, we're asked to do so much by so many, and those requests keep growing and cutting into what used to be class time.  In fact, it's often rare that I can have a solid week of uninterrupted class time.  We are bombarded by all the extraneous facets of school life: blood drives, Homecoming festivities, club meetings, picture days, convocations and special programs, etc.  With each interruption, both teachers and students are faced with the challenge of making up for that missed class time all within a time structure that leaves next to no room for any make-up.

And that inflexibility is the crux of the problem.  While the demands on most teachers' time has increased in terms of planning, more detailed grading, and a growing mountain of educratic paperwork, we are still expected to maintain the same six to seven classes per day, five days a week.  Is it any wonder that many of us, at one time or another, assign pointless "busywork" assignments (which may take a little effort to set up but are easy to grade and can be re-hashed for years) while those students go through the motions copying one-anothers' work and learning nothing?  Sometimes, I watch what's going on in my school, and I think that I'm watching a paper-shuffling factory more than I am a school.  We are all busting our chops and getting a lot of "work done," but the kids say they're not learning anything.  The best of us contribute to this because we have to, because survival in this system sometimes necessitates it.

In my perfect school, our philosophy would be simple: Take the classes you need, and only the classes you need.  The first thing we would dump at our school, would be the insistence that our students take seven classes a day, five days a week, one after another after another.  Likewise, our teachers, rather than rushing Helter-Skelter from one class to another producing, distributing, and haphazardly grading the aforementioned busywork, would instead teach two or three classes per day.  The remaining time would be spent writing REAL, in-depth lesson plans; grading REAL essays with thoughtful and constructive comments filling up the margins; and addressing the additional emotional and psychological needs of students which often bleed into the classroom and demolish performance.  Students, now taking only the few classes per semester they need will spend their "down" time (which is not what it will be in any sense of the word now that teachers with more time to plan properly are creating much more involved, research-oriented assignments), working in our vast library or sitting in on tutoring and one-on-one sessions with quality assistants and instructors.  In other words, at My Perfect School, less is more...much, much more.

Finally, our school's schedule will not be dictated by absurd state requirements (mostly designed by the short-sighted business community obsessed with forcing adult-oriented "productivity" models onto teenagers).  Instead, we will operate from as early as 8:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night.  Some classes will meet on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rotation; others on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and still more will meet only once a week for three hours at a pop.  Sound familiar?  Under this flexibility, our kids who hold jobs...can work, and our kids who are trying to crawl out of the hurdles created by teen pregnancy, their parents' divorce, or a death in the family have a realistic shot a valid diploma rather than a GED or some other certificate.  It's time that we told John Dewey thanks...but no thanks.  Not anymore.

Remaining Chapters:

6.  Where We Spend OUR Money
7.  Rules the Really Matter
8.  Epilogue

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