March 19, 2018
I’ve been having lots of Jerry Maguire moments lately. If you have not seen the film, it is about having late night (any time of the day, really) epiphanies about your job or situation in life. My job is a combination classroom teacher, third and fourth grade to be exact. I’m pretty sure I was hired, in part, due to my many years of teaching experience as well as my specific experience in a combination classroom.
My first year went well in respects to loving the staff and especially the principal. What I found almost unbearable at times was the severe behavior I had to address on a daily level, especially after winter break where some students, who did not initially pose as a behavior problem, suddenly began to unravel. Of course, I internalized all of it and mostly blamed myself for lax classroom management. This past year, I have teamed up with another teacher who has excellent classroom management. It has made a world of difference, and I have enjoyed having the support and camaraderie, but I come to the same place in the year where some of my students are unravelling despite the well defined structure and expectations.
My district has put a lot of money and time into defining the state of affairs in public education and what we can do about it. Poverty and childhood trauma have been a focus of training and subsequent strategies this year. It is no secret that the number one correlation to success in school ties to socio-economic status in life. Yes, I am making a blanket statement, and there are many exceptions, but this is what we see daily in the public school system.
So we go about trying to make up for years of “schooling” that a student did not get at home from engaged and nurturing parents. We meet basic needs by feeding our students, providing their school supplies and even providing after school programs for those needing even more help. Teachers differentiate lessons to meet the needs of all learners with the goal of filling the gap for the lower achievers, but the extra time and effort may or may not show needed gains for those students. I myself find more gains when my whole class participates in the same lesson and I individually assist those needing scaffolding or accommodations.
The problems I see with public education are many, and many books have been written on the subject. I have read some of them including Charlotte Iserbyt’s “the deliberate dumbing down of america.” [sic] Her thousand page account details a century of legislation and practices in modern education. I have also spent the last few years reading current material from fellow educators and activists such as Emily Talmage, Nancy Bailey, Diane Ravitch, and Alison McDowell.
This past year, I have delved into the roots of proficiency based learning and the implication it has on my students. Much of my training in my district has been around how to teach with “targets” and why this is all beneficial for students. We unpack targets, we reference targets and of course, we assess targets. Many of these targets, especially in reading, address higher order thinking as do the standardized tests. Here’s one: “Understands when an author is trying to convince or persuade an audience.” This is a third grade target. If a student is struggling to read, they will certainly not be capable of ascertaining the intentions of the author. This is just one example of the inappropriateness of what we are expected to teach. Many teachers feel the “rigor” we are demanding of students is not developmentally appropriate, and some will question it, but then we get the rhetoric.
The rhetoric sounds fabulous! Who does not want a student thinking critically? Who does not want curriculum that challenges and sets high standards? Who does not want problem solvers and students who are self directed learners? I bought into all of it and was summarily frustrated when I was seeing the complete opposite in my classroom. I saw many students having the hardest time comparing and contrasting with the simplest of texts; I saw students who could not perform basic computation despite reviewing the skill every day; I saw disengaged learners doing the least amount possible. I taught with fidelity those curriculums ( Everyday Math) meant to promote critical thinking. For my top students, it worked fine, but they already had a firm foundation in math facts and number sense. For the rest of my students, it produced confusion and failing scores on assessments. The gap was so great for some that they were scoring at a first grade level on our STAR test, and I wondered how they could be advanced to the next grade and still not qualify for special education.
Things did not make much sense to me until I started reading about Classical Education. My niece was homeschooling using this model and her children were bright and engaged and knew a whole lot more content than my own students. What was the difference? The biggest thing I saw was that they were expected to memorize a vast amount of material. Surprisingly, young children are excellent at this and this trains the brain to hold more and more information in its working memory to facilitate reasoning. Our current public education demeans this practice and calls it archaic and uses derogatory terms such as kill and drill or an outdated industrial model. You see many videos of rows of classroom desks with students going through rote memorization without a thought in their head. You see speakers groaning how we are killing creativity.
What you certainly won’t see in these videos are children singing and smiling as they memorize facts such as the states and capitals or our presidents. You won’t see students able to compute large sums because they practiced this skill hundreds if not thousands of times with smaller numbers. You won’t see middle school students able to write clear and concise essays because they over-practiced English Grammar and sentence structure in elementary school. Many foundational skills are not glamorous, and studying them is hard work. Instead we focus on reaching that top tier of Bloom’s taxonomy without laying a solid foundation of grammar. By grammar, I meant the grammar of all subjects-the vocabulary and rules.
We have been lied to when we are told that children do not need to memorize facts since information is at our fingertips. They can just “look it up.” I can tell you what happens when a child does not memorize math facts. The next skill, whether it be long division, fractions or algebra, is extremely difficult. They expend so much energy on figuring out the facts first, they will often get lost in the algorithm.
The fundamental harm has come from expecting students to be at the dialectic (processing new concepts logically) or rhetoric (explaining concepts to others through writing or speech) stage and bypassing the knowledge (grammar) stage. Imagine expecting students who have just recently learned to read able to produce a five paragraph essay with thesis statement and supporting details. Many haven’t even mastered writing a complete sentence with proper punctuation, yet teachers have to focus our instruction on these lofty goals that few in our classroom will meet.
So, I come to the question I have been asking myself and others for years-just because some students are capable of a task, do we expect all students to rise to this challenge? By setting that bar high in the early grades, we have set up many for failure, and suddenly we find we have to lower the bar for our middle and high school students since they did not get a firm foundation in elementary school. We have not narrowed the gap in learning, but have instead, created a chasm separating haves from have-nots.
I know the furor in Maine has focused on diplomas, but there is so much more that is fundamentally flawed with how we are teaching children today. We need to really look at all of education and not just the end product. We need to ask hard questions and get beyond the rhetoric of what it means to be a 21st century learner. Wisdom is a product of knowledge and understanding. I want my students to get there as much as anyone, but not until they are ready.