Monthly Archives: December 2008

Education as the Emperor’s New Clothes

Education is not the filling of a bucket…. –William Butler Yates

I get up every morning at 5:30AM, eat breakfast, make lunch, and get ready for school. If a school calls me to substitute, they will call by 6:30 and I have to be ready to leave. Sometimes a school asks me to return the next day. One school seems to like me enough to keep me busy most days. It is a middle school, grades 6-8. A small school where everyone knows one another. Good kids. They like me and I really like them.

One reason they seem to like me is that I don’t take them, or what they are doing in school, very seriously. I try to make their incarceration as painless as possible.

A student enters the class and tells me he has forgotten his book. He left it in his locker down the hall. But, the Substitute’s Notes say that I am to give a demerit to anyone who comes to class and has left his book in his locker. I tell the student, “You know that I’m not allowed to let you leave the classroom to go get your book. But, since I’m turning my back and can’t see you leave the room, I won’t see you going to the your locker.” I turn my back and the boy leaves the room.

“I’m back!” he says when he returns.

“Back from where?” I say with fake surprise.

“Oh, yeah,” he says with a smile. “I get it”. And, he sits down with his book.

During the class, a girl sits despondent, doing nothing. I walk to her desk and ask her in a whisper if she needs help. She says, “I’m failing this course.”

I know I would never get away with telling her the Great Secret. Of course, she already knows the Great Secret, but only intuitively. She would never be able to articulate it and I can’t articulate it for her, even though I think just knowing that I know would mean everything to her.

Last week I entered a class and, on the teacher’s desk was a pile of papers written by different students. Each set of papers was identical: three pages copied from the School Manual. These kids had all been to In-School Suspension and spent some of their time copying The Script. It began, “My grades are the most important thing I have to do at this age. My grades determine my success in life.”

The Great Secret is that we all know these kids simply cannot generate an interest in the information being presented to them. There is nothing within them that reaches out to want to know this stuff. So, they have to find some other motivation that makes them want to “learn”: that an action word is called a “verb” or that Julius Caesar was a threat to the Roman Senate. What motivation? That to fail is not acceptable because their grades will determine their success in life.

I sit with the other teachers during lunch period and hear them complain that nobody has ever figured out how kids learn.

Will a time ever come when grownups finally admit that the Emperor is naked?

The 6th grade Social Studies teacher has been teaching for many years. He confides to me that his students have the lowest scores in the school on the annual year-end test that determines if they actually learned 6th grade Social Studies. “I am not allowed to see the Social Studies questions that will be on the test. There are hundreds and hundreds of pieces of information I must teach these kids during the year, but there are only 5 Social Studies questions on the test. If they don’t get most of those 5 questions right, it is assumed they haven’t learned 6th grade Social Studies. And, it is assumed that I am a bad teacher.”

Will a time ever come when grownups finally admit that the Emperor is naked?

Kids as buckets being filled with thousands of pieces of unrelated information. Information they don’t need to, or want to, know. But, nobody is willing to tell them that how they are feeling is legitimate. Instead they are given demerits for squirming in their seats or wanting to talk about really important things like who’s dating whom or that their parents are getting divorced or that their mother is dying of cancer or that they really love to play soccer but they can’t because they are grounded for failing this course.

At least they do get exercise during the day. Yesterday I walked into the gym during my lunch break to see a gym full of male students playing badminton.

In government schools children are never asked to do anything that is real. There is nothing important to do there–John Taylor Gatto (former New York state Teacher-of-the-Year)

Will a time ever come when grownups finally admit that the Emperor is naked?

Who’s fooling whom?

Back to the land of the living

“In government schools, there is nothing asked of children that is real. There is nothing important to do there.” –John Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year

I had spent a week visiting James in Wisconsin and watched his show twice. The rest of the time we just goofed off, read a lot and ate a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner prepared mostly by the ladies in the cast. It snowed the first night I was there, so we had a real “winter wonderland” feel to the little town of Wisconsin Dells. We even spent one afternoon crunching through the snow visiting the little village shops.

There was lots of drama as one of the members of his small cast decided to become offended at the way management was treating him and he walk away from the show just 15 minutes before curtain. This left the rest of the cast members to figure out how to carry on the show without his dancing, singing and acting. But, professionals as they were, they pulled if off with real class! Of course, James was his typical awesome self.

Unfortunately, the last day I was with James he began to get sick, which means I came back to Knoxville with a sinus infection which became a major sinus infection plus bronchitis. It’s only this evening that I think I might be on the mend.

But, trying to teach school without a voice is interesting. Fortunately, I have established enough rapport with the students in the Middle School that they like me enough to behave (more or less).

I have decided that I am not going to be the typical teacher who yells or threatens. As I watch these kids act out in class, I actually empathize with them. Those acting out seem to be the most “alive” of all the students and I find myself enjoying them more. One student asked me why I homeschooled my sons. I said, “Because I hated school and I decided I wasn’t going to make my own children suffer.” They were amazed that a teacher would say such a thing.

I was in the teacher’s lounge Friday and overheard two teachers talking wondering why no one ever seems to be able to figure out how to make school “work” for its students. I thought, “When will responsible adults be willing to admit that institutionalizing young people isn’t the way to raise them?”

Tomorrow I return to Middle School and a new set of “dramas” entitled, “Why do we do this to children, anyway?” It’s all The Emperor’s New Clothes and it makes me sad for the kids.

I have contacted Cairo about teaching there next school year and have begun advertising my two trips to Israel in 2009. Other than that, not any new news to tell