A personal anecdote on education

This past Wednesday my wife’s parents, my mother, and my mother’s partner, Art, came over for dinner. As always, since all of us have worked or still work in education with the exception of Art, the conversation turned to teaching and schools. My mother-in-law, who works in a pre-school, complained about the push for kids to be able to read BEFORE they reach first grade or even kindergarten and we began to talk about what learning really is and how small children really learn through play. This is nothing new, especially since we all actually agree, for the most part, that the direction education is going in this country is patently wrong and have actually read the science that proves it. But it made me think about my own early education and how that played out.

I was born in 1972, a very different world from today. Phones had cords and dialing wheels. Some cars still ran on leaded gas. And there was a highly successful TV show that had been running for three years called Sesame Street. It was followed by a somewhat newer one called The Electric Company. My parents were intellectuals and constant readers, so they read to me and they gave me books of my own from very early on. I watched those shows and learned to count, recite the alphabet, read short sentences, and speak fairly grammatically well, all thanks to characters like Kermit the Frog; Grover; Cookie Monster; Easy Reader (Morgan Freeman); the ice cream man (Bill Cosby); and Fargo North, Decoder (Skip Hinnant). [Do you see the pun in there!]

By the time I was in kindergarten, I knew basic math and how to read at around a fourth grade level. So, when I wound up in Mrs. Buckley’s class and kept calling out answers to “What letter is this?” or “What word is this?” or “When we add two to two how many do we have?” I wound up in the corner of the classroom at a desk with a pile of worksheets. I was told that the desk was my office and that I had to finish all the work given to me by a certain time, and then left alone to do my work. I missed out on the games the kids played to learn how to read and do math because I already knew how to do those things. That wasn’t very encouraging.

Then, in first grade, I had a teacher who was more encouraging of my learning at my level. There were two other students in my class who were advanced like I was and we were our own reading group and math group, but I still only did the absolute minimum amount of work required of me. Why? Because, the year before had taught me that doing more than was expected was wrong. If you try too hard, you wind up in the corner with a pile of worksheets rather than playing with the other kids. My teacher, Mrs. Morton, grew frustrated with me and tried to push me further, knowing I could accomplish so much more than I was doing. By the end of the year, she recommended that I skip second grade. I had already completed the academics of second grade — I was at a third grade math level and a sixth grade reading level — so why not? So I did.

Looking back, that was probably the worst thing that could have happened to my education, because school is not just about sitting at a desk and doing work. Education is not about trying to absorb as much information as one can and then moving up and moving out. It is not job training. It’s about brain training.

By skipping a grade, I was placed with kids who were one step ahead of me socially. Sure, I was a mature kid physically and mentally, but I didn’t know how to handle myself as a middle-grader. All the kids knew I was younger because I hadn’t been in second grade with them, so, if I looked smarter than them, I got picked on more. I couldn’t stand up for myself because I didn’t understand the dynamics of the school playground at that level yet. (By the way, I am coming at this all in extreme hindsight, of course.) My teachers didn’t understand why I either didn’t do my work to my fullest ability or why I became a bit of a class clown as the years went by. By sixth grade, which was still in the elementary school back then, I was being sent to the principal’s office for fooling around in class and distracting others. I was just still trying to find my place and being smart wasn’t going to make me cool.

Don’t get me wrong, I did have a few friends. In fact, I am still friends with one guy since third grade. I was a boy scout in order to try to fit in. I played town sports, which I wasn’t very good at yet. I did all the pre-teen boy things one did in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But I also learned that school cannot be fun and is just something you have to get through, all by the age of 11. Meanwhile, at home, I was encouraged to be smart, to seek out answers, to analyze situations, and to try new things.

Then I got to middle school — seventh grade. I switched out of the public schools in Teaneck and went to the private school at which my father taught art. My parents thought I’d get a better education there. I thought I’d get a new start socially and be able to find a place for myself. All of us were wrong.

Dwight-Englewood prides itself on being an excellent prep school for elite colleges, and it is. I had some fantastic teachers there who are some of the inspirations for my becoming an English teacher and I had some real stinkers. Either way, the focus was on academic PRESSURE. You had to excel, to compete with everyone for the highest grades to get into the best schools. Test scores and GPAs meant everything. The school didn’t rank except for valedictorian, but we all knew where we stood because we ranked ourselves. It was a grind that also got reflected int he sports there. If you didn’t find a place where you were great, you were lost. It took me three years to find mine, but I did. I never fit into any of the cliques, but I had a group of friends that hung out outside of school and played or studied together, and I was the javelin thrower. I threw that spear further than anyone else in the school. And, honestly, throwing spears just sounds pretty cool too. Was I a popular kid? Not even close, but I had a few things to be proud of and a group of friends that I was close to. Then it all went to hell again.

My father got a Fulbright teacher exchange during my junior year of high school. We went and lived in The Netherlands for the 1987-88 school year. Though I made friends there — none of whom I’m in touch with anymore — and I learned a lot there — I can still speak rudimentary Dutch — I lost everything I had built up at Dwight for four years. When I came back for senior year, I had to start almost completely from scratch to build a social life, a school life, and a personal image. I managed to cobble one together, a little better than when before I left, even, because of what I had learned in terms of confidence and skill abroad, but that was only for a year before I went off to college.

What is the whole point of this story? School’s not all about the academics. Each student, from a very early age, is different in terms of personality and abilities. School needs to be a welcoming place that allows the student to discover those abilities and thrive on those differences. Teachers should be there as guides to deeper knowledge and understanding, not taskmasters who drill specific skills because there’s going to be a high-stakes test on them.

A kid isn’t very good at math? So what? As long as he understands the basic ideas of it, he will be fine because he will always have a calculator in his pocket. The student has a lot of trouble reading text critically? That’s a shame, but there are plenty of people out there who have very successful lives and never read more than a sports article in the paper or the basic wording of a job contract. Why does every student need to read and analyze every single amendment to the Constitution of the US? I don’t even know all of them and I’ve been fine for over forty-two years. Yes, we should attempt to teach these things to them, and, particularly, teach the IMPORTANCE of these things to them, but to force them to memorize them so that they can answer questions about them on a state exam is worthless. To push them to get all A’s in school is child abuse. On the fifth day of school this year, I already had a student crying in my classroom because of the amount of stress she is under for doing well and applying to top schools.

Sure, it would be great if every student was an “A” student, but they can’t all be. Top students will go to top schools and others will go to lower-level ones. As long as every student is working to his or her best ability, then there is no fault in getting a “B” in English if the student is really better in math and science. In fact, why have grades at all? Just evaluate students on their effort and try to help them do better skill-wise in each subject.

But that would mean trusting teachers again, and that is a whole other post for another time.

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