Monthly Archives: January 2009

I got into trouble today

Students can learn to think, speak, calculate and write more easily through close contact with reality than through confinement and abstract texts.–John Taylor Gatto

I was called this morning to teach 7th grade math when the teacher had a sudden medical emergency. She didn’t leave any work for the kids to do, so I was left to come up with something.

I asked the kids if they had ever heard of Pythagoras. They all said, “No,” they hadn’t. So, I filled them in on who he was, what his current followers believe and the theorum he developed 2500 years ago that all builders have to use when they construct a house, room, addition, fence, etc. Then I placed them into teams of 2 and gave each team 3 pieces of string of 3 different lengths: 3′, 4′ and 5′.

Then, I told them they were building inspectors who were being hired to inspect their school to see if it had been built properly. They would determine this by going about the school and measuring the corners of the rooms, halls, doors, etc., using the strings to find out if these areas had straight corners.

The classes loved roaming the school. Some even asked permission to inspect the Principal’s office.

The students returned to class with their observations. Each student had to give an overall rating of their school from 1-100 and then another student figured out the average score for the school which turned out to be 78. They loved being able to give out a grade for the first time in their school experience.

At lunch today the teachers were giving their typical, daily complaints about their students. One teacher shared that she had stopped her 1st period class and asked them, “What is going on with you all? You are completely disinterested in what you are supposed to be learning. What do you have to say?”

One student answered, “I think we could use our time more wisely than having to learn all this stuff.” You can guess how the teacher reacted to this honest response (a response which had been asked for, by the way). She was not happy. I thought it was pretty astute of the kid, myself.

Anyway, I ran into trouble when some of the kids made too much noise as they wandered around. Some teachers got angry with them and asked what they were doing. A couple of teachers even reported that I had sent these students to do a project, but had not adequately supevised them (which was true). At the end of the day I looked up most of the other teachers and apologized.

When do kids get to learn something that matters?

Growing up absurd

“It’s not what you say to me that’s important; it’s how you make me feel.”

I’m getting really tired of hearing my students describe themselves as “dumb”. I hear it almost every day.

“I’m dumb and I don’t really care,” a student said to me today. The other day in the hall I passed a girl and she said as she passed, “There’s goes the only person who doesn’t think I’m dumb.”

Last Thursday I was standing in the middle of the hall as the students entered the building and began walking to class. It was like being in the middle of a two-lane road with the traffic going by me in both directions. As a girl passed by me she stopped abruptly, gave me a hug, and walked on down the hall. I looked at her in disbelief as she disappeared into one of the rooms. I didn’t even recognize her. She must have been one of the many teens I don’t know who had been in one of my classes. I had no idea what was going on in her mind.

Today I subbed in art class. I got the class started in the drawing lesson their regular teacher had left them to do. It was the day’s final period and many of the boys were about to go stir crazy. They talked, pushed one another around, asked if they could go to the bathroom, asked again, goofed off and were generally crazy. I sat and watched them. They are supposed to behave (which means sit quietly and do what is expected of them). I can’t bring myself to make them do it.

“You know,” I told one boy (who was asking me if he could go to the bathroom or to the library or anywhere that would allow him to move around) “you aren’t acting like a public school student is supposed to act.” He just looked at me, not sure he wanted to know what I meant. If he had asked, I would have said something like, “All public school students are supposed to do the same thing at the same time without making any noise while they are doing it. You, on the other hand, are acting too independently.”

I had lunch duty today. While I was walking around the lunchroom listening to all the energy being expended in youthful conversation, I noticed one, lone table in the corner. Three boys were sitting at the table. I walked over to the table and sat down.

“Is this the ‘bad boy’ table?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said one of the boys. I recognized him from one of my classes a couple of weeks ago.

“Were you a bad boy today?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I was caught sitting at a table that is not my Homeroom table. We have to sit with our homeroom class instead of our friends. They make you eat lunch at this table if you do something wrong. I don’t get it. Why can’t we sit with our friends?”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Why don’t you do something about it?”

“Do something about it! What can I do?”

“Well, you know, there is a right way to petition those in authority if you don’t like their decisions. Why not find out if any other students in the school think like you do? Write up a petition and pass it around to all the students. Have those who want to sit with their friends, instead of with their Homeroom, sign the petition.”

“A petition!” he said. “I never thought of a petition.” His eyes were wide with the possibilities.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “If you decide to do this, I would recommend that you give the Principal some room in your petition. Why not ask him to give you the liberty to sit with your friends for one week. If it doesn’t work, he can put you back to sitting at a table with your Homeroom. Tell him you are willing to take it a week at a time.”

“A petition,” he said again. “I have friends in each of the other grades. They can work on the students in their grades. Yeah. I’ll do it!”

Lunch was over. The students picked up their trays, filed one-by-one to put their trays in the tray window and left the lunchroom. As one of the kids (not the one I had been talking to) passed the other lunchroom proctor, the boy said, “Hey, Mr. Deets, why do we have to sit with our Homeroom. Why can’t we sit with our friends?”

Mr. Deets (responding as if the question had been impertinent): “So you can learn to do what you’re told. That’s why.” The boy dropped his head and left the lunchroom.

So public school exists to teach people to do what they’re told to do. Hmmm…

In a society that is increasingly fragmented, in which the only genuinely successful people are independent, self-relaint, confident and individualistic, the products of school and schooling are irrelevant. School as an institution “schools” very well. But, it doesn’t educate. We force children to grow up absurd–John Taylor Gatto

I can punish you, you know

“No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.”–John Taylor Gatto

Today I entered a class of 7th graders. They were full of energy and youthfulness. I told them that if they were able to finish all the busy work their teacher had left for them to do, I would tell them a riddle.

That opened a floodgate. Almost every child had a riddle of their own they wanted to share with me and the rest of the class. I just couldn’t say “no”. So we took some of the time to do riddles before I finally stopped the fun and told them we simply had to do the work the teacher had left for them.

They settled down and began to work, but they kept asking me if there would really be time before the end of class for my riddle. I said I didn’t think so.

But I just couldn’t say “no”. With 15 minutes left in the period, I told them to put their work aside. If they got in trouble tomorrow, they were to tell the teacher it was my fault. It was riddle time.

I told them the “red hat/green hat” riddle. They came alive with all kinds of quirky and interesting answers. All were wrong, but all were clever. They were jumping up and down with excitement.

Riddles, questions–things that make them want to know something. To get involved. Not just predigested information that never stirs the mind to think outside the box or that has any connection to something in which they are, themselves, involved.

My previous class was an art class. It was filled with 8th grade boys being made to do things they knew had no meaning to their current or future lives.  The boys simply couldn’t sit still and draw.  I knew that if they acted this way with their regular teacher, they would have gotten in-school suspension. They were being “bad”. I could have said, “I can punish you, you know.” That’s how schools keep its young people in line. With fear. That’s what I was taught to do in my substitute Orientation Class.

But, these boys weren’t being bad. They were being boys. I wanted to make the walls go away and let in the light of day. I wanted to let them out of their cages.  I wanted to punish a government that actually thought it was a good idea to do this to the next generation while, at the same time, it was saying it wanted the next generation to be creative and inventive.

In 1990, 1 in 15 millionaires was a school dropout. I wonder what that statistic is almost 20 years later.

Teachers are mostly good people. Education is a wonderful, and necessary, thing. Schooling is an abomination because it mostly mitigates against being able to receive an education.

Should I tell them another riddle? Maybe I could kidnap them and we could all help Phil build a house, or work in a homeless shelter for a day, or…