Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Thinking a lot about the state of primary and secondary education (public and private) as much of the materials I deal with at work are geared toward curricula which are organized around ever-changing state standards and moreover standardized tests. Everywhere there are graphics that interrupt the text- *fcat! *icat! *Xyzcat! And sample tests, and drills for things one needs to remember for state and nat’l tests. And remembering my poet-in-residence days sensing a strange mix of curiosity and panic from the teachers whose elementary classrooms I was dispatched to that a full 40 minute period once a week was being spent on something that didn’t matter on a scantron. And while the schools differed- one an overcrowded, underresourced, innercity school full of many students for whom english was a second language.. the other a small, highly selective magnet school for gifted children- I saw the same phenomenon… students at first bewildered and then delighted to be doing something creative, talking about poems, sharing whatever silliness my writing prompts had generated. The first few weeks with each new class inevitably there was a skeptical one or two who had to ask me, “are you sure we’re not being tested on this?” this from 8 and 10 year olds. and another thing I noticed.. the period was always too short for all of the students who wanted to share their work outloud with the class, talk to me one-on-one, or respond to something else shared by someone in the group. Sure, there were a few kids who chalked poetry hour up to goof-off time, but most were overly eager for a rare opportunity to dialogue and not be hemmed in by right and wrong answers, in both schools. The same students who were particularly eager for my attention, usually writing two or three poems in a class period where one is what was expected, were the same ones I’d see with oo-oo hands waving during their other lessons with their regular teachers, which out of curiosity I’d try to linger before/after my session to hear and see, and they were seldom answered because the teacher was obliged to prod the 32 other kids who were less eager. These teachers, many of whom remarked to me that they appreciated what I was doing, and that they saw improvement across subject areas when students’ abstract thinking and language skills were concerned, would say that they wished they could do more of such things if they only had the time. More time than 9 months? Well, maybe we get to do more creative things in May, after the tests are over, they said. I believed them. Any attraction I felt at ne time to their profession dissipated when I saw how hard they worked within a system determined to legislate away all of their time. All of this and the US is still last when developed nations are ranked according to high schoolers’ ability in core subjects? (Though an article in Slate suggests that American hs’ers aren’t dumber just lazy..i.e. blow off the internat’l tests because they don’t “count.” And the other article in the times this week that basically posits academic success best gleaned via the threat of familial shame and lack of all discrenable joys of childhood). Intermittently I like to read child cognitive development type of books to better understand what one’s potential is for learning vs. the institution’s falling short. Years later it seems that most people I encounter who are smart, creative, self-styled learners report having been utterly bored for most of their pre-college years. Then there are the adults I’ve educated who have been so conditioned by this system of points and consequences I’ve been hard pressed to get them to do anything beyond the minimum stuff for credit. These are the only reasons I don’t miss teaching. I anticipate most of these issues will be moot with the one-day, non-compulsory poetry workshop I’ll be leading at the Chicago Public Library’s new Logan Square branch on Saturday, Nov. 5th.


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