Friday, December 28, 2007

It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Zing

Fair warning: Long rambling rant ahead.

We can’t really appreciate something unless we notice it. It’s hard to notice something when it’s surrounded by lots and lots of other somethings. When there are too many, no matter what there are too many of, we tend to take them for granted and even resent them. Think "dandelions." A few are things of beauty, but too many are weeds, all alike and indistinguishable from one another. Tis thus with "children," too. Another book I often quote, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," describes children this way:

(Katie's baby is sickly, and an old woman has told her it would be better off dead.)

“Don’t say that,” Katie held her baby tightly. “It’s not better to die. Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”

“Aw, somebody ought to cut that tree down, the homely thing.”

“If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful,” said Katie. “But because there are so many, you just can’t see how beautiful it really is. Look at these children.” She pointed to a swarm of dirty children playing in the gutter. “You could take any one of them and wash him good and dress him up and sit him in a fine house and you would think he was beautiful.”

It's hard to see individuality in a swarm. It's hard to see beauty in a crowd. It's difficult to notice differences when the numbers are overwhelming. When a classroom is overcrowded, it’s impossible to give each student the attention he/she not only deserves, but NEEDS. When there are too many, only the loudest, the most disobedient, the worst behavior problems, and the squeakiest wheels get any attention. Little quiet well-behaved students are ignored. They’re appreciated, when the overworked and overwhelmed teacher gets a chance to catch his/her breath and think about it, but ultimately there is just no time left over for a child who doesn’t “demand.”

These days, our schools are mostly concerned with standardization. Not just the tests, but the everyday classroom interaction and technique. “Scripting” is quite the trend right now; with a script, each teacher will instruct the students in exactly the same way. Teachers who have excellent speaking voices and like to put some feeling into their instruction are instructed not to do so because it gives their students an advantage that other teachers’ students will not have. There are no outlets for creativity with scripted instruction. I understand the need for each classroom to teach the curriculum standards, but why can’t each teacher do this with his/her own individual ZING? Zingless teachers should be fired immediately, anyway! A classroom with no zing is a dead, boring place. How can a script contain zing?

Supposedly, scripted classrooms can contain more students than a classroom with a reasonable amount of just a few students.

I do not like the idea of scripted instruction for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I believe it would force excellent teachers down to the same low standards as the poor teachers. Shouldn’t we be striving to go the other direction? But then, school systems have been forcing excellent students down to the level of the poor students for years, so I suppose it was just a matter of time.

Who is writing these scripts? The only ones I've ever seen were lifeless, insipid, boring, uninspiring drivel, aimed at - who else? - the lowest common denominator in the classroom. If they were properly written, it might work.

I think our classrooms should have no more than twenty students, no matter what kind of class it is, or what grade level. Less if possible, even.

More than that, and you no longer have a room full of individual faces and names and personalities, all of which are well-known by the teacher and by each other, unless the teacher is a pretty poor specimen. More than that, and you’ve got a sea of faces and a list of numbers, and by Christmas the only names the teacher will know are the names of the behavior problems. This is not acceptable. Of course, I don’t believe chronic behavior problems should be acceptable at any time or in any place, but that’s just mean ol’ me.

While I’m whining here, I also believe schools do not encourage our children to put out much effort. Administrators are too worried about scores and money, and parents are overly concerned with self-esteem and being a basketball starter and making the cheerleading squad and ‘feeling good about oneself.’ Key word: self, and not others. Standardized tests aren't really very difficult; if you've never seen one, go to your child's school and ask to see an old one. They have to let you see it. Don't ask for the current test; the teachers aren't even supposed to see that one until it's unsealed a few minutes before the test begins. Schools get around it, of course, but them's the rules. These tests are a concern mainly for the struggling student population, on whom the financial future of a school often depends. But it's not fair, or even RIGHT, to require those students who know what they're supposed to know at a certain grade level, and often more, to sit there and endure while the lower depths are drilled. On test day, many students can skim it and mark it and have time left over to read the library book they generally carry with them at all times to help them get through the excruciatingly boring school day, and do very well, score-wise.

I hate it that so much of every school year is devoted to reviewing those things that were supposed to be covered and learned in years past. So many students got it then, but they still have to participate in reviews year after year, instead of being allowed to take the prior knowledge and run with it. NOT FAIR.

There is entirely too much review in many of our schools.

If you help the chick hatch, it will die. If the chick has to struggle and strive and remember and work – its OWN work, it will thrive. Many of our schools, these politically correct times, are so concerned with self esteem and never taking chances and never comparing and never competing and never having winners or losers (we're ALL winners here!) (horse-hockey!) and never keeping score and never excluding anybody for any reason, they've forgotten what a school is actually for: to help students learn how to read well and write well and figure well, and learn about the past so they can apply it to the present and the future, to learn to think clearly and appreciate good books and memorize things and be exposed to all kinds of things the child can't begin to understand yet but will at some future date. Those sudden "Wow!" moments, when we don't understand something and then we do, are priceless. Our curriculum takes most of those moments away, because schools are obsessed with immediate understanding and measurable results.

I'm all for measurable results, but many of the most important things can not be measured.

When there are too many children in a classroom, it’s not possible to do much more than measurable standardized stuff. There is no magic. There is no wonder. There is no imagination. Yes, before anyone can really soar, he/she needs to have a core of basic knowledge with which to work, but honestly? I think that if our kids had the prospect of magic and wonder, they might be more interested in earning the right to go there via mastering the basics. Mastery should mean privileges. Non-mastery should not. Again, these things are more easily accomplished with smaller groups.

If your child is one of an overlarge group in his/her school, don't let a week go by without asking the principal, the superintendent, the school board, when those numbers will become workable. Don't take "no" or "later" or "budget problems" or “Sadly, not this year” or ANYTHING for an answer. Keep at it. Go public. School superintendents fear publicity. Write letters to the editor, comparing the empty library shelves and 35+ in the second grade classroom to the luxurious athletic bus and the brand-new gym built so ten or so kids can strut their stuff. Find out how many kids don't have books because the school didn't buy enough, and tell everybody. Get a visitor's pass and ask to tour the school; pay close attention to classrooms stuffed so full of desks there is no way anyone could possibly walk around in the room, including the teacher. Look to see if the teacher has a desk; often, the teacher's desk is removed to make room for more student desks. Don't ask for average class sizes; my daughter's third grade classroom had 36+ students in it, while in town, no third grade classroom had more than fifteen. One town school had three third grade classrooms of twelve students each. The average, on paper, looked really good. The reality was, in our little country school - part of a large consolidation - the parents didn't know they had the right to ask questions; they just accepted. This is not ethical. It’s legal, but not ETHICAL. Ask how many students are in the classroom. This is public information and you have a right to know.

A teacher and fifteen students can accomplish so very much more than a teacher, an aide, and 38 kids. I have long believed that many schools "include" students so they can pay one teacher's salary, one minimum-wage aide's salary, and not have to hire another teacher. And unless inclusion is done properly, nobody benefits except the corporation budget controller.

Any time a child is forced to sit in a classroom so crowded that all the faces start to look alike, and all the names just kind of run together, and all the eyes start to shine less each day, and all the hands that would like to rise in the air and answer remain listless because who's going to see in that sea of other hands, it is long past time to protest.

One dandelion is beautiful. It's a flower, and a flower so attractive, people would buy them in nurseries and set them out in rows and make borders with them. It is only their commonness and their numbers that make them such nuisances, and make people want to negate their status as genuine flowers and instead treat them as usurpers and parasites.

Our children are worth the battle. Each child is unique, a snowflake, a fingerprint, a star, a face like no other face, a smile like no other smile, a talent waiting to be discovered and challenged and encouraged.

This is a ramble and it’s incoherent. Sometimes when I’m angry about an injustice such as overlarge class sizes, children who are forced to suppress their talents and abilities and wait, wait, wait while the teacher has to repeat, review, and repeat over and over, something half the class ‘got’ three weeks ago and would love to take further but can’t because the other half still can’t do it, I get really really REALLY upset for the sake of the kids who want to move on.

I used to be really down on homeschooling, and I still am when the parents don’t seem to know their ass from a hole in the ground, but more and more I am coming to believe that parents who know what they’re doing and who allow their children to soar, have the kids who are going to cure cancer and write symphonies and sculpt masterpieces and sing at the Met. The overcrowded public schools have the kids who could have, but were never given the chance because of the numbers and because all they really learned in school was to wait, and that school had nothing in store for children who knew things already. They were ready to move ahead but were not allowed to. They could have shed their shoes and danced with the stars, but were allowed only to sit quietly and wait, feet flat on the ground with those who couldn't have danced with a star on the best day of their lives.

This is wrong on so many levels.

Posted by Mamacita (The REAL one) @ 11:57 PM | |


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