Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Few Modest Proposals: Education

Dissecting the problems of the American education system is all the rage now. It happens every few years. Nothing much ever comes of it, other than a few newfangled, often silly programs for math or reading or bulletin board design. As a former student and a former high school teacher, I feel uniquely qualified - well, as qualified as anybody - to impart my solutions to the education "crisis." Learn and do:
  1. Let teachers teach. Parents, stand in support of them. Most of my teachers were outstanding, but I did have a few awful ones along the way. Mother and Daddy always stood solidly in the teacher's corner, good or bad. I knew that. That parent-teacher support also ensured classroom discipline. Parents, use your helicopter skills outside the classroom to encourage reading, play time, and to make sure homework assignments are done. And if your little darling has a lousy teacher along the way? Well, welcome to the real world, with the occasional lousy boss or supervisor. Learn to function and carry on.
  2. Stop teaching to these ridiculous standardized tests. Nothing is gained by it, and it keeps teachers from really teaching and students from really learning. Use them for their original purpose, but stop putting so much emphasis on them. No more SAT tutors!
  3. Arrange the students' desks in the time-honored system of rows. No more circles. No more cushions or learning centers. Rows. Facing forward. Sitting in rows eliminates (as much as possible) distractions. The teacher can see each little face. Rows are safe and functional. Rows.
  4. Provide sturdy, comfortable desks for the students. Have you tried to sit in one of the unstable, molded plastic monstrosities filling today's classrooms? Who on earth could concentrate for more than 5 minutes in those awful things? Go back to sturdy, solid seats with desks large enough to spread out a notebook and textbook. Same for little kids. Give them solid chairs and desks.
  5. Concentrate on basic grammar and spelling skills. Effective communication isn't possible without the proper tools. All we do is yammer on about math and science, math and science, when the real problem is that foundational, everyday communication skills are lacking.
  6. Put away the beans and buttons, and unpack the flashcards. Students, especially the little ones, have a great capacity for memorizing and learning via rote. This is not a bad thing. Tap into it while you can. To this day, whenever I have to add, subtract, multiply, or divide, I see the appropriate flashcard pop up in my head. Unpopular, I know, but face it, a lot of what we know as adults we memorized as kids. I suggest using the beans and buttons for art projects, not math.
  7. Teach handwriting skills. Handwriting, especially cursive, gets a bum rap these days as everyone taps out stuff on a keyboard. But proper handwriting is a good discipline to acquire and can be applied to lots of other areas of learning. Plus, everyone needs a fabulous way to sign her/his name, eh?
  8. Get rid of backpacks. Why load down students with so much stuff? No one should have to tote all of their textbooks and electronic goodies around all the time. Require a notebook or tablet (real paper, not electronic), pens/pencils, and, if necessary, a USB flash drive for bringing electronic work (even electronic textbooks) to and from classroom and home computers. Set our children free!
  9. Demand courtesy in the classroom, in the hallways, and on the playing fields. This goes for teachers, students, administrators, and parents. We must become a civil society or education is useless. Be nice.
  10. Enforce school dress codes. I don't like school uniforms, but I'm all for stricter dress codes. This goes for teachers, too. Start dressing like adults in the business world. Grow up, cover up, brush your teeth and hair. Works across socio-economic lines.
Schools can't be all things to all people. We have to stop expecting teachers to be parents and law enforcement officers, as well as effective teachers. Parents, do your job. Teachers, do your job. You can't make schools safe with metal detectors; you make them safe when teachers and parents work in tandem.

Several things stand out about my fifth grade class picture. One:  it was lily white. A very bad thing. Yet the students were a real socio-economic mix - some wealthy, some poor, lots in the middle. Two: 29 kids. Our classes were usually 28-32, considered too big today. But I guarantee you that Mrs. Peters had very few discipline problems. And she was such a sweetie! Three: sitting in sturdy desks, in rows. Four: actual chalk on actual chalkboards (I hate the dry-erase stuff). Five (and maybe the most important thing): the PTA Attendance Banner that meant our class had the most parents attending PTA meetings.

So, there's my 2-cents' worth on the education miasma. A longing for the 1950's? Perhaps. But more a longing for courtesy, civility, and solid classroom learning. Just fix it before GrandBoy Liam lands at the schoolhouse door.

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