Monday, January 23, 2017

The Purpose of School

“I write about my own experiences because I do not know so much about anyone else’s.” Freeman Dyson Disturbing the Universe

“He obviously thought the whole thing rather above my head, and he said that if I had the cheek to make verses about Eärendil in the house of Elrond, it was my affair.”  Bilbo Baggins

            There is a video on TedTalk in which a businessman, not a teacher, criticizes public school education in America.  He states that it could be improved by changing certain practices.  I found him annoying, but the audience loved him.  I think it’s because outsiders’ ideas are considered fresh and new simply because they come from an outsider.  However, just because something is fresh and new does not make it valuable–take manure, for example.
            When I talk about our public school education, I do so from a position of experience.  I am not an outsider.  I taught mathematics at a large urban high school for over twenty years and have been in hundreds of classrooms observing the teaching and learning process.  My education, experience, and expertise has confirmed what a wise woman once told me my first year of teaching:  Students mold a class into their own image and train their teachers to fit the mold.  It is the unacknowledged social compact between teachers and students.
            Most teachers and students are unaware of this social compact, but, thanks to Sylvia Ybarra, I was not.  Once she told me about this phenomenon, I found it interesting to observe the students busily working at molding me.  This particular social compact worked for me because (1) I taught as I pleased and (2) the students learned as they pleased.  It worked because my students and I had the same idea about what is the purpose of school.  We all thought that school was for socializing and having fun.  The curriculum was merely the vehicle by which to accomplish this dual purpose.
            Yes, my students trained me.  When my lessons were fun, interesting, and promoted social interaction, my students rewarded me with smiles, good humor, and cooperative learning.  When a lesson was dull and boring, they disengaged.  I was grateful for that because it trained me not to bore people.
            My students also trained me to be a good storyteller.  In my first year of teaching, I learned that they liked stories.  So I turned math lessons into stories.  Sometimes the stories required actions and physical models that called on students to actively participate.  Watching freshmen crawl on the floor pulling beads on a string, pretending they were in a wagon train is truly an edifying sight.
            Thanks to my students, I learned that there is a song for everything.  “Chain, chain, chain” for the Chain Rule in Calculus, “Girls Just Wanna Have Functions” in Algebra, and the classic “Logarithms” in Trigonometry.  Every year, to celebrate May first, I sang “Ce Moi de Mai”, a French song, which had nothing to do with math but everything to do with spring.
            I also learned that no joke should be left untold–even if I was the only one laughing.  Actually my students laughed, too.
            “Ms. Hart, we are not laughing with you; we are laughing at you.”
            This, of course, produced another laugh.

            “What about academics?” I can hear someone ask.  “Doesn’t the curriculum matter?”  Of course, it does.  I was a responsible teacher.  I taught all the standards, I assigned homework, I gave tests, and I graded student work.  In my class, the students solved math problems–thousands of them.  As a result, they exited my class with more math knowledge and proficiency than when they entered.  It was a value-added system.  They left with a better understanding of real world phenomena, which is the ultimate goal of high school mathematics.  But they also added to their knowledge of human relationships and social phenomena.

            So whenever I hear an outsider talk about what is wrong with public school education and what should be done to fix it, I am willing to listen.  But if their ideas do not support the purpose of school–to socialize and have fun–then I ignore them.  They are just too fresh and new.

(P.S.  I have a new post on WordPress )







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