Friday, August 6, 2010

In Defense of Public Schools (Mostly the Elementary Ones)

I was born shy and got progressively less so with every passing year. The first few years of my life were overshadowed by a crippling reservedness that didn't allow me to visit my next-door-neighbor's house until they'd lived there for a year - and those were people I eventually came to be best friends with for a good five years of my childhood. As such, the doors of my preschool were the gates of Hades to me; the other children I didn't mind so much, but the main teacher was too abrasive for four year olds and her assistant was too coddling. I dreaded those three hours per day, three days per week. Naturally, I wasn't too excited for kindergarten - school every day? What twisted adult came up with such a child-hating scheme?

Imagine my utter befuddlement when instead of a scary child-eating monster à la The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, I was greeted by a wonderful teacher with a fabulous sense of humor who told me I was a good reader because I moved my eyes and not my whole head when I read!

Memories are as vivid as the blinking screen in front of me. The screechy lunch assistant who caused us to snicker that principals only hire supporting staff who hate children. The time an infestation of mold caused a fourth-grade class to seek refuge in the wonderfully cozy library. The glorious, wooden, castle-like jungle gym that was eventually demolished due to the sheer number of students who didn’t understand that you have to grip the pole when you’re sliding down it. The songs we sang to our home-grown butterflies as we released them in the beautifully messy courtyard. The way we slugged through the hallways on the last day of school, reluctant to leave; how, as we stepped through the archaic glass doors and felt the burning June sun on our cheeks, we forgot all about our former teachers and ran across the wide field to celebrate our freedom on the pleasantly hot swinging monkey bars. The annual back-to-school tradition of all of us eagerly lining up, anxiously shoving past each other, to find our names under our new teacher on the lists posted on the front of the school building.

And the learning, too: working through problem after problem of Singapore math, a since abandoned yet astonishingly educational math curriculum. Wrapping strands of yellow tape around our bellies as we embarked on a giggly lesson of how to measure. Milking my one-day absence for all it was worth as I turned in a report on whales three days late. Snarkily writing “if you don’t understand, you should probably read something else” in that report, only to have my teacher warn me in the margin to “be nice.” Hearing my fourth-grade teacher ask me to sign her own yearbook because she wanted to have something to prove that she taught me when I became a best-selling author. Mixing together a gooey mess of “Oobleck;” I still don't know if it is considered a solid or a liquid.

When I visit my recently rebuilt elementary school and see its reflecting tiled floors and beige-white walls, its irrationally clean rooms and orderly art displays, I'm overwhelmed by a certain nostalgia. I don't want to return to elementary school; it was great, but not an environment in which I could currently flourish - mostly because the oldest student there is maybe twelve. What I want, I think, is to gift my experience at elementary school to all the kids currently attending it.

My brain knows that the old building was way too small and old and unclean, but it was so colorful and simply bursting with personality. I want to give these kids the splatter-painted art room's walls, the exclusive "pod" of fourth and fifth grade classes that made us feel like we'd finally worked our way to the top. I want to give them the incredible feeling of being "just okay" at reading in kindergarten and suddenly having it click over the summer, and shooting to the most advanced first grade reading group. I want to give them all somebody like my parents and fourth grade teacher, who wouldn't let the system push me two grade levels ahead in math because they all knew it would stress me out way more than it was worth. I want all the kids who don't speak English to have the most amazing ESOL teacher; I want the kids frustrated by learning disabilities to still manage to find a love for learning. Most of all, I want everybody to find elementary school as worthwhile as I did. I was a reasonably intelligent and relatively privileged kid. I want everybody else to be the same. Not for them to have the same ideas, the same strengths and weaknesses; not for them to be identical slaves for the system. I just want them all to have teachers who care, teachers who can teach, parents who have time to go over their homework with them.

That’s the same attitude that should continue through middle and high school as well. It’s harder when you get older because there’s no allotted recess or finger-painting-with-shaving-cream-under-the-pretense-of-cleaning-the-desks breaks (although I do think high schools should implement an official nap time. You know, besides most history classes). It’s harder because there’s more pressure on the teachers to prepare you for this and this and this. It’s harder because counties have less money due to and think that cutting back schools’ funding is a great solution.

But at the same time, I’m not living what you’re seeing, Alex. I don’t feel like the only reason I’m in school is to pass a test. Maybe I’m biased because I love the subject, but as an example, I’ve never – not once, not even during middle school with the sixth grade teacher who actually did hate children – felt like an English class was just trying to prepare me for a test. What I loved about my English class this past year was that our teacher genuinely cared – or at least, did a damn good job of pretending to care – about what we had to say. Our class could actually have a discussion and there wouldn’t be one correct test-worthy answer.

I guess the point of this somewhat disjointed post is this: Public school has potential. I know it does, because I've lived it. Right now, especially in high schools, the learning has a tendency to get pushed aside in favor of better test scores. But there are people, students and staff alike, who fight against that, and it is possible for that jubilant elementary school attitude to be restored.

4 comments:

writing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
writing said...

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Alex said...

Thank you for you post, Vita. It was pretty beautiful.

I can see it. I can see the image you've painted of elementary schools. Of fun and learning, friendships and a sense of messiness. I can see that.

But there's things wrong with the concept too. Don't you think it's hypocritical when adults stress that every child is individual and unique--we're all special and have different strengths and weaknesses; And then they give everyone the same curriculum to follow. Doesn't that seem weird? I don't think elementary schools exist to harness everyone's passion and creativity and curiosity. I think they exist to get everyone on the same level.

And yes, I'm sure there are teachers who take it beyond that. Who focus on thinking for yourself, who love children and encourage you to try new things and make mistakes. But there's definitely not enough.

In high school, I'm positive that there are teachers like the one you spoke of. I've heard stories of different ones from my friends. Teachers who ask why and want to hear what you think. But on the flip side, there's the teachers who give science and history a bad name.
How many kids leave high school every summer hating science? Science is exciting. Science is fascinating. Why do we have to make it so boring?

Maybe I'm just an cynical rebel who doesn't know anything about calculus (except who to spell it :). Maybe I'm overly critical of what I don't understand. But I don't think any person can be prepared for "real life" by having sat in a classroom for as long as you kids do. I don't think kids should have to be bored or do things they don't want to do.

Just think: What if every time you have ever been bored with school in your life--every time you were writing a stupid report that you didn't want to write or every time your teacher was repeating to other students something you already knew--what if you took all that time and did something incredibly exciting. What if you wrote a novel, instead of doing homework? What if you were volunteering at a pet hospital instead of making a model cell? What if you were in Paris reading about the French Revolution instead of in your classroom?

What I'm saying about boredom is that you shouldn't get accustomed to it. You shouldn't accept it as a necessary part of life. Fight back and find every intriguing. People seem to think that boredom is inevitable but it's not. Boredom isn't a state of being, it's a state of mind.

Thanks again, Vita and sorry if this immensely long comment seems to be raining on your parade.

Vita said...

I'm trying to take an SAT diagnostic test but after doing four problems all I'm thinking is FUCK FUCK FUCK I HATE MATH. Which is really how most of my thought processes towards math are, but when it's coupled with an idiotic standardized test that is, as previously mentioned, idiotic yet stupidly necessary to get into college I just get REALLY FRUSTRATED.

...This isn't helping my case towards public schools. Sorry. Deep breaths.

Anyway, yeah, in an alternate universe I would love to try "un-schooling" but it's really not feasible or even particularly wise for me to drop out of conventional school right now.

And, I see what you're saying, but I have to somewhat disagree. There's a lot of contention about the curriculum, but it is tailored to fit each student as best as possible. Time and money restrict a truly individualized curriculum, true. However, when you think about it, all young kids need to learn basically the same things - how to read, how to write, how to do basic math, basic geography... From my perspective, there's nothing wrong with everyone following the same curriculum - to an extent - because it's material that they have to learn anyway. We encounter a problem, I think, when the kids get a little bit older and start showing major strengths or weaknesses in specific areas yet are still expected to keep pace with the rest of the class. Now, at my elementary school, we were all divided into separate reading and math groups, which at least helped to ensure that everybody was getting work of an appropriate difficulty level and that worked out pretty well. The REAL problems are with the other subjects (namely, social studies & science), which I guess out of necessity get less attention. If there's one thing I hate about public school, it's the terrible science classes. I don't blame the teachers THAT much because in all honesty they're not given much to work with, but it's extraordinary how such a complex world can be reduced to such fascinatingly boring textbook pages.

Also, public school is the best way to ensure that as many people as possible get an education. Of course it's not perfect, and ideally everyone would follow their own educational path, perhaps like you do, but in reality, if EVERYONE was "un-schooled" or something similar, a lot of people simply wouldn't learn due to: a lack of resources (money, the internet), unmotivated students, busy parents, learning disabilities that never get treated... (WOW that was a congested sentence.) Please don't take this the wrong way; I'm sincerely not trying to insult your school dealio, because I am intrigued by it and it obviously hasn't dumbed you down, but at LEAST public school in America ensures that all students will get some sort of attention. It may not be all the attention they need, there may be a few cases where it actually is more harmful than helpful, but at least it's there. Do you see what I mean? Mass education has to be regulated to some degree - if it weren't, it would ultimately fall apart. It sucks, but I don't see any solution to it other than to try and improve the current system.

That said, I'm certainly not opposed to alternate schooling and trying to give as many people as possible access to that alternate schooling. I just think that, to put it simply, public schools are better than nothing.

I could write an entire blog post discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the school system as I know it, but this comment is long enough already, so maybe another time, haha.