posts tagged with 'education'

the default religion

The other day in the school library I spent half an hour pulling books about winter celebrations. With about 40 books assembled in total, it was interesting to compare the size of the stacks for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and Ramadan (yes, I know Ramadan isn't a winter holiday; I was just following orders). Christmas had the most books, but only by a hair over Hanukkah. Kwanzaa was probably the most over-represented in terms of books per observance; there were four Kwanzaa books, tied with Diwali and one ahead of Ramadan. More telling than the numbers alone, though, was the way the different holidays are presented both in the books themselves and in the layout of the library.

The Ramadan books and three of the Diwali ones are nonfiction titles. The way they all present their subject is totally othering: they're absolutely respectful and even enthusiastic about the holidays, but they're written for a blank-slate audience and so have something of a "look at this crazy thing!" tone about them. And they're shelved in the "Religion" section of the Dewey Decimal classification (the 300s), along with the Greek myths and ancient Egyptian gods. You can also find a few Hanukkah titles in that section, but tellingly nothing about any Christian holidays.

In addition to the "Rookie Read-About Holidays" Hanukkah books, there are lots more titles in the picture book section. A few of them are basic "my first Hanukkah" texts, but lots more of them are real stories written to celebrate Jewish culture. There are more Hanukkah picture books by Eric Kimmel alone than there are books about Diwali and Ramadan combined, and lots of other authors are represented as well. There are also two Kwanzaa picture book stories in the same vein; one more explain-y one and one actual story.

In most of the Christmas books, on the other hand, Christmas is pretty much just a background. With so many of the cultural features of the holiday part of the reader's assumed knowledge, authors write stories where characters have interesting experiences and learn valuable lessons at Christmas time, but rarely engage with the holiday in any real way. To go by nearly all of the library titles, Christmas is about exchanging presents and finding ways to be happy with your existence.

Of course, part of the reason for that is the public schools' careful avoidance of any appearance of Christian proselytizing. The Hanukkah and Kwanzaa books get spine labels with the name of the holiday and culturally-relevant pictures; Christmas books' tags say "Holiday". The library will stock books explaining the origins of Diwali in Rama and Sita's return from exile, but you won't find a single mention of Jesus (except maybe from Tommie de Paola). It's meant to be sensitive, but causes it's own problem: it positions Christianity as the unspoken default and marks all other faiths as other.

To an extent, that's fair; there are more nominal Christians in that particular school than followers of any other single religion. But if you ask me, all religions are interesting, including Christianity! I wish we could trust schools and teachers—and libraries—to disseminate information about different faiths in a fair, even-handed manner. But we can't; we can't even manage to talk about science that way. So this is the situation we have. Not a huge problem, just... not quite right.


fearless education

There are good things about public schools. It's great for kids of different backgrounds to be together, curriculum coordinators and adventurous teachers come up with great learning activities, and the Common Core standards have some solid ideas about helping kids really understand math. But beneath all that, there's a problem: at its heart, the whole operation is driven by fear.

The other day I was passing by the Waldorf School in Lexington around mid-morning, and I had to pause on the bike path to let a class of first- or second-graders cross from the conservation land behind the school back onto school grounds. It was a chilly day, but they were all well-bundled up and seemed happy enough to be outside enjoying the November sunshine. As I understand it, all the classes at the school spend time outside every day. That would never fly in the public school.

For one thing, the kids might get cold! Kids being cold or wet is a huge concern of public school educators in the suburbs, and most of them are quite happy to disappoint kids' hopes of playing in puddles—or even going outside at all—in order to save them from the dangers of the elements. And even teachers who think that wet feet are their own reasonable deterrent hesitate, less they incur the wrath of parents. Would most parents be particularly upset to have a kid come home still damp? I expect not; but one might be. And that's enough to shut down any puddle fun across the board, and all spring the cry of "Stay out of the puddles!" echoes across Massachusetts schoolyards.

And then of course there's the concern that, if kids are outside—even to "take regular nature walks and observe the daily and seasonal changes in the natural environment"—they'll be missing vital pedagogical opportunities. We're not going to catch up with Singapore if we're wasting time in nature! As is the case with the fear of weather, it's not clear who first decided that first grade would set the academic tone and decide if a student would be able to gain admission to a prestigious college... but now everyone seems to think that. So there are no more toys in first grade rooms, except those to use during the 20 minutes of indoor recess a day kids get when it's colder than 25 degrees or so.

As it is now, no one seems able to step back and take a deep breath and realize that, provided the right circumstances, kids really like learning.

Harvey and Taya doing math, Zion painting

school work delight

And I understand how seductive fear can be. I fall prey to it in my own teaching, and when I think about what I'd do if I were in charge of educating a whole town's worth of kids—or even a dozen at a time—I start to have "responsible" fears about how ready the average child is to make their own educational decisions. That's nonsense, just like it's nonsense to think that eight-year-olds can't be trusted to decide whether they're cold or not. As educators, our job should be to accept kids as they are, and do the best we can to make learning appealing: not forcing facts and methods into kids' heads, but creating an environment where they can explore what interests them and make their own educational path.

It's possible that doing that on a large scale would be a disaster, or even that I won't be able to manage it for our tiny farm-school co-op. But maybe it can work... and I'm not afraid to try!

Harvey and Zion shoveling compost as school work

this is school work too!

Especially when I get free farm work out of the deal!


more picture books, please

I was in the school library today looking for a book to read to some first-graders, and as I perused the picture-book shelves—a significant share of the library's real-estate—I wondered how many of those books the kids were actually reading. And it's not only because it's hard to find picture books you like at libraries—their spines are so thin you have to pull each one out to see if it looks interesting. No, the real problem is everyone wants chapter books or comics.

Not that there's anything wrong with either of those. Good chapter books draw you in and expand your world like no picture book could ever do, and good comics are great for developing readers like Harvey and 6-year-old me. Lots more good things to say about both, elsewhere. But picture books are awesome too, and for lots of reasons they're just what first-, second-, and even third-graders need. For one thing, they're more like what kids that age are producing themselves: short, illustrated, stand-alone stories. And the pictures hit the sweet spot between chapter books and comics: they can keep kids' interest and give scaffolding for imagining the events of the story, without filling in all the gaps like most comics do.

Most importantly, though, picture books are great examples of good writing. Like poets, picture book authors faced with limited space need to shape their language carefully, and the elegance that engenders is just what kids need to be exposed to as they develop as writers themselves. Any kid that wants to can do plot—kids plot all the time in their imaginative play—but to write good prose they need to be exposed to good prose.

The reason for all the chapter-book love also points to how picture books are helpful for kids developing as readers too. The way reading is taught now drives kids to achievement: how many pages can you do? How long can you read in one sitting? How many inferences can you write down on post-it notes? To be reading chapter books, then, is a badge of success proudly trumpeted even by kindergarteners. Only... most chapter books at that level are terrible. And when kids are only reading books—bad books—as status markers, they'll stop reading entirely when their peers stop thinking reading is cool. Like in second grade.

The perception of picture books is that they're for little kids (and the child's definition of little kids is always someone littler than me) and that they're easy to read (they're filed under "E", for goodness sake!). That's obviously far from the reality: plenty of picture books feature vocabulary kids won't find in chapter books until they hit the stuff written for middle-schoolers. And you can find picture books that address the issues of people of all ages. (Some libraries have even started shelving some with the chapter books as "advanced picture books" or suchlike—which I think is solving all the wrong problems!)

So the problem: kids think picture books are babyish, and when they pick them up they can't read them anyways; and even if they want to find a good picture book it can be hard (and—a subject for another post—there are plenty of bad ones). What do we do about that? Why, it's easy: read to kids! When we grown-ups pick good books, and show kids that we care about those books and think they're worthwhile, and read the words expressively, and invite discussion about the stories... we're inviting the kids into a world of literacy instruction that's more than skill-building in reading and writing. It's creating life-long appreciation for the wonders of the written word. Then they can enjoy chapter books and comics at their leisure; and write em too!


seeing my "name" in print

Recently I was reading a book on Waldorf education and I encountered a quote from my 4th grade teacher, Steven Levy. I didn't know he had written a book, so I requested it from the Lexington library. It came in on Friday and I sped through the thing in no time. The book describes how Levy built his classroom curriculum around a different theme every year. One year it was bread making, another year the children made their own desks. You know, the kind of thematic curriculum planning that comes natural to home-schoolers but shocks and amazes in the public school.

Chapter seven describes a class taking wool through carding and dying to spinning and weaving. Hey, I said to myself, that's my fourth grade class right?? We did the carding and the dying and the spinning he describes. We had community members come in one day and teach us all how to knit. I remember that day vividly, probably the most important day of my first decade of life. Somebody's mom, I will never forget how you demonstrated to me how to put the needle through the stitch, remove my right hand from the needle to wrap the yarn around, replace my right hand on the needle and remove the stitch. WHY OH WHY DIDN'T YOU TEACH ME TO KNIT CONTINENTAL??? OH What might have been!!! We all would have at least twice as many sweaters as we do now!

Of course, I know why you didn't teach a fourth grader how to knit continental. I've tried to teach it to others and it's very difficult to learn. Not intuitive. Fingers get tangled. Throwing the yarn is easy and anyone can learn it, to the detriment of their entire future knitting career. But I digress.

I realized Levy definitely WAS talking about my fourth grade class when he mentioned Tuuka, a student from Finland who knit a spectacularly long scarf. I cannot imagine anyone else's fourth grade class also contained a Finnish Tuuka. Oh the thrill of recognizing my own experience in print! That's my forth grade class you're talking about! I WAS THERE!

Then I saw this:

"Day after day Leanne brought in bags of white hair from home. It turned out to be from her dog. She was able to spin the dog hair into yarn on the drop spindles, and weave a beautiful blanket for her dog out of the dog's own hair!"

Ahem. First of all, it wasn't a blanket, it was a beautiful wall hanging and it's still hanging in my parent's living room. Chakra McKinley Bernstein may you rest in doggy peace. Second of all. Leanne? LEANNE? Why not Louise or Lesley or Lee like everyone calls me when they forget my name? Did drawing the name Tuuka out of the archives sap all your memory power so you had nothing left to waste on Leah? THE DOG HAIR WEAVER???

Dan says don't take it personally, he probably changed all the non-Finish names.

And anyway, in all fairness, I cannot remember half the things described in chapter seven. The field trip to the sheep farm? The woman coming into the class repeatedly to teach dying techniques? I remember losing my voice one morning and regaining it in the afternoon and feeling like an idiot. I remember falling off my chair and hitting the back of my head and how everybody stared at me to see if I had died. I remember getting poked in the eye with a yard stick and the student teacher taking me to the nurse said, "Don't baby it." I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded extraordinarily harsh to someone who had just gotten her eye poked with a yard stick.

In other words, with this and other pedagogical works I have read recently, I must take everything with a grain of salt. My best laid plans will always look well-integrated and dreamily educational but my children will more likely remember the day I ran a fever and started shattering pottery.

As a parent, forth grade seems impossibly far away. I am looking forward to the day when I can do real making and information gathering with my children. Researching how the pilgrims processed wool and the types of sewing patterns they used and then making clothes the way they did? That would be totally my thing. Instead my thing right now is reading board books for hours and hours, none with more than five words on a page. Zion just started getting interested in books a few weeks ago, but his attention span is more age appropriate than Harvey's was at 16 months. Good thing Harvey's attention span is magnetic to books, and he can happily sit through thirty minutes of "Colors" followed by "Numbers" followed by "ABC." Anyway, it's fun to think about the future even as I attempt to cultivate patience in the present.

As long as my kids don't start calling me Leanne.


school early and often?

Some time ago I happened to notice an opinion piece in the New York Times that suggests parents should send their kids to school as early as they're allowed to. If there's some leeway in the cut-off age, that is, the little tykes should not be kept out of school until they're more mature, but should be thrown into the fray as soon as possible: educational and economic logic demands it. Or so says the authors, one of whom is an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience and so might be presumed to be able to sustain rational thought. Perhaps not, as it happens!

Never mind the argument that delaying your children's start in school will mean that "their lifetime earnings are reduced by one year", a statement that assumes a wide range of premises I don't even want to address. What really caught my attention was the following:

In a large-scale study at 26 Canadian elementary schools, first graders who were young for their year made considerably more progress in reading and math than kindergartners who were old for their year (but just two months younger). In another large study, the youngest fifth-graders scored a little lower than their classmates, but five points higher in verbal I.Q., on average, than fourth-graders of the same age. In other words, school makes children smarter.

Yes. I certainly hope that first graders are making more progress than kindergarteners because they're being taught more. When those poor slow kindergarteners move up to first grade they'll, statistically, make the same progress as every other first grader. Or maybe a little less: note that the young fifth-graders scored lower than their older classmates. Assuming that "verbal I.Q." is even a real measurable thing (isn't "I.Q.", by definition, supposed to be unchanging?) and the study devised a means to measure it accurately, this means that by starting your child early you're actually denying him chances to learn. Statistically, if he were in fifth grade a year later he'd be smarter and better! (He would also, most likely, be more popular with the ladies.)

Perhaps the authors dismiss this, in accordance with the high valuation they put on lifetime income—more bank is a worthwhile exchange for less knowledge. But it's strange to me that they didn't even mention the potential trade-off. Perhaps they couldn't get it in under the word limit the Times gave them? That's why they should be blogging instead! (Is anyone still reading?)

The crux of the piece comes in the second half, where the authors draw on their neuroscience background to explain that "brain development cannot be put on pause, so the critical question is how to provide the best possible context to support it." That is to say, research shows that the brain is changing fastest in the first six years of a child's life, and therefore the argument is that children should be in that "best possible context"—school, natch!—for as much of that time as possible. This does not follow.

First, what about the initial 5 to 5.9 years of the child's rapid development? If school is really necessary to getting the most from those crucial years of synapse building I think that most of humanity pretty much missed the bus. I don't think that the authors want to take newborns away from their parents and subject them to scientifically-designed state-sponsored education—but why not, given their premises?!

Second, I would not be so quick to assume that school in fact is the best possible context for anything, except perhaps storing children and limiting the trouble they can get into (or rather, can inflict on the wider community). And I say this as a teacher and someone who is committed to the public school system. Yes, in most cases school is a great place to learn school things—how to write essays, different ways to solve multiplication problems, why Columbus didn't discover America—but I would suggest that those are not the primary concerns of five-year-olds. I didn't learn to read until first grade, and I'm doing fine now (though I don't want to talk about my lifetime earning potential).

A complicating factor comes in the authors' appeal to helping the less-fortunate:

Disadvantaged children have the most to lose from delayed access to school. For low-income children, every month of additional schooling closes one-tenth of the gap between them and more advantaged students.

I'm not quite sure what that means—whether the low-income kids need to have school to themselves to catch up, or if just being in school together with other students eventually levels the playing field. The following lines, which claim that moving back cutoff birthdays hurts poor kids, suggest the latter, but that's completely ridiculous: no matter when you start school you're going to get the same number of months there before you're done. Unless of course he's assuming that the poor kids are all going to drop out as soon as they can.

It all strikes me as a little paternalistic, actually. I agree that young kids have rapidly developing brains: that's the only point that touches on the author's area of profession expertise, and it's also completely common sense. But those brains don't need to be developing reading or income potential—they might just as well be working on language processing and motor coordination and spacial reasoning. Kids can get all those playing in a field with other kids, no "education" required.

Of course, I readily acknowledge that in certain circumstances "disadvantaged children" don't have the same field-related opportunities as other youngsters. And in some subset of those cases, the best real-world solution would be to get children who are otherwise languishing into kindergarten, or pre-K, or Head Start. But that's already happening. And overall, it is not correct to baldly assert that more school early is better. Even if, as a parent, you're only worried about lifetime income potential. Maybe it would be better to use that vital fifth year for some early on-the-job training!

[As an aside, in researching for this post I discovered a Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence Test from Psychology Today, which, of course, I had to take. Needless to say I totally rocked it, scoring in the 99th percentile. 99.97% in fact, if you want to be exact. Together, my internet-validated intelligence and my MEd degree trump Sam Wang's neuroscience doctorate and Sandra Aamodt's... journalism school experience, and let me conclusively say that this article is bunk.]


you know what else was collaboratively edited? the Bible!

It's the beginning of a new school year, so once again the fifth graders are being introduced to historiography—which is to say, being taught about "sources". Sadly, time does not permit the budding young scholars to investigate any topic more deeply than would be satisfied by a glance into their textbook, but form demands that they be taught at least two facts: that there are things called "primary sources", and that Wikipedia is not reliable. Naturally, the justification for this latter point is that "anyone can edit it".

You know that I think that's ridiculous. There are basically two reasons for there to be "false information" (quote-marked judiciously) on Wikipedia: vandalism and bias. Obviously, the first can't possibly be a problem in a traditionally-edited text, and so it is presumably the cause of teachers' concern. But really, how often is Wikipedia vandalized in a way that would trick even a fifth-grader into thinking that the vandalism was true encyclopedic content? If "ROSA PARKS WAS SO GAAY LOL!" makes it into a school project there are bigger problems than the student's choice of sources. Yes, we can imagine that there are people maliciously changing, say, the birth dates of obscure historical figures; but knowing that Ethan Allen was born in January instead of June is hardly vital to an understanding of the course of the American Revolution.

Plus, you may not be aware of this if you haven't actually read Wikipedia but there are some serious experts—and seriously dedicated people—posting things on that site. Anyone can edit, sure, but User:Magicpiano is going to edit a lot more often than any vandal, and he won't let any shit slip by that doesn't belong on that Ethan Allen page! Which is to say, obvious vandalism is generally dealt with instantly, and subtle vandalism will only be able to hang around on pages that no one is watching; pages that won't, most likely, be needed by fifth-grade researchers.

But what about bias? Surely the random... No, I can't even formulate a hypothetical that would make Wikipedia seem dangerously biased compared to any other historical source. Yes, I noticed recently that anarchists seem to be more active on Wikipedia than Marxists: witness the one-sided treatment dealt out to Hague Congress (1872). But the same research project also led me to A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, by Richard Pipes... who as it turns out was a Cold-War-era analyst for the CIA who argued that there could be no hope of detente with the totalitarian Soviet state. That doesn't make his book useless by any means, it just means that it won't be the only one I read on the subject. And how did I check on Richard Pipes, when I saw how many books he had written about Soviet Communism? I looked him up on Wikipedia, of course!

It isn't even as if that sort of bias is something that bothers fifth-graders—or their teachers, in fact—in the slightest. For the most part they limit themselves to the barest account of facts, and parrot those facts from whatever source they happen to find. Speaking as a historian, most things written for a fifth-grade reading level are, if nothing else, infected by the biases that are almost inevitable in that sort of simplifying and compressing. But that's a problem that is much too big to consider at the end of this already-long post, and one that has nothing to do with Wikipedia in particular.

One final point, just to drive home how much it bothers me to hear people complaining about the collaborative aspect of Wikipedia: Wikipedia is almost certainly the most reliable source about historical events on the internet. Yes, it's written an edited my many people, and you may not know who they are. But everything else on the internet is written by one person (well, one per page... you know what I mean!) and that person's motivations and biases, to say nothing of their actual level of knowledge, are just as opaque as those of the Wikipedia editors. School teachers can't say that kids shouldn't look things up on the internet—the internet is like all the rage these days, with the technology and the interfacing and everything—so they should lay off the Wiki-hate. And also consider getting a degree in history, but I understand if not everyone has the time for that.