Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Reading" and "Math" are Poisoning Our Children

I've been homeschooling using an eclectic approach for six years now (longer if you "count" preschool years), and I recently began tutoring schooled kids in reading. I find the way these brick-and-mortar-schooled students relate to reading to be heart breaking. Our country's acountability movement - where teachers' abilities are based on their students' growth measured by averages and generalities - is harming our children. They see themselves as stupid failures. Their parents, caught in the net of standardization, cause more harm by saying things in front of them like, "I don't know what happened. I think he's just lazy." The problem in schools isn't teachers' abilites. It isn't lazy children. It isn't too little or too much government control. The problem is that we have lost sight of what learning is really about.

Imagine a scene where a mom comes to pick her daughter up from soccer practice. The coach hands Mom a piece of paper with detailed information about every little minutia of soccer skills. He spent the practice testing everyone on how well they kick a ball around orange cones, bounce the ball of their heads, and kick the ball as far as they can into a narrow goal. The coach says in a gloomy, whispered voice that the girl dribbles the ball like a child two years younger than she, taken on a scale that includes world champions. The coach explains that they will be working over the next few months to improve this skill - and only improve this and other details. There will never be a game. Player and parent don't expect a game. They might have even forgotten that a game is the whole point or ever existed in the first place.

The idea is sad and absurd. But this is exactly how reading and math and spelling and probably some other subjects are taught in school today.

I look at my tutorees, who fidget with their snack cup of goldfish cracker crumbs and stare at their shoes blankly, and I tell them something they have probably never heard before. I say, "I don't care what your grades are," they look up in surprise, "or what your IEP says." A spark of light and curiousity enters their eyes. "I care that you care about reading for you. I care that you know the joy of finding a book you like. I care that when you want to find something out, you know how to do that by reading. And that's what we're going to work on." I'd probably get in trouble if their parents, teachers, or my bosses heard me say I don't care about their grades, but I don't care. I find it criminal to tell a student he is stupid and lazy when he's never been shown what the whole point of reading is. When he has been handed the details of mechanics and then tested on them and come up short, but has no idea what it's all for.

Take another comparison. Imagine students are taught about music notation - what each note counts as, the name of the note, and where it goes on the staff. They are taught scales and modes and rhythms on paper. But never are they given a drum or a keyboard with which to apply this knowledge. Never are they played Bach or Katie Perry or anyone in between. Again, the idea doesn't make sense. We don't teach music this way. We (usually) let a child fall in love with music and rhythm in daily life and on the radio, take them to the symphony and notice what they are drawn to, and then we let them mess around with an instrument. Then we teach them notation and keys and sharps and flats, in the context of the radio and the symphony and even Youtube.

But again, reading and math are taught out of context. Why? I think because we have so abstracted these skills in order to break them down into little chunks that we can test on - and test teachers skills on - that we adults have forgotten what the point is. Except for nerds like me whose idea of a lovely afternoon is wandering the stacks at a huge library, we've forgotten the whole point of reading. We don't even notice when we use math to bake cookies, go shopping, or contemplate the swirl of water down the bath drain. And while this might not seem terribly important, it is. Becuase in forgetting the beauty and context of literature, nature, and life in general, we are poisoning our children with the notion that they are not good enough. They are hearing that message loud and clear, and believing it to be true. And that may be the greatest travesty of our time. Because who will fight for justice and a cleaner planet and healthy food for all when he thinks he doesn't matter?

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