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A Silly Fight in the Sandbox

At dinner one evening, when my daughter, Lizzie, was in first grade, she said: “You know how some teachers just let you play? Well, I want to know stuff, and that’s why I like Ms. Lexton; she teaches us stuff.” [I hope you read this, Cheryl]

Cheryl was a brand new teacher out of Teacher’s College in NYC when she walked in the door of my school and asked the receptionist if there were any teaching jobs. The receptionist called me, and I invited her into my office. When Cheryl said she had gotten an A+ in her student teaching, I decided to hire her.

No mistakes here! The kids all loved her; the parents, too, and she joined right in with the Lucy-Calkins-trained teachers to build a top-notch writing program at Cathedral School in Morningside Heights, Manhattan. My daughter was lucky enough to be one of the beneficiaries.

For my whole career there has been a ridiculous argument in our profession about the best way to teach. Boiled down it is: Do you teach them stuff, or do you let them play. This is the ivory tower version of two kids fighting over a shovel in the sandbox. Should we let them play with manipulatives to learn mathematical concepts or should we instruct them that 8 x 7 = 56?

It is fundamentally an ivory-tower fight. When teachers are confronted with the responsibility of preparing their students for the next level of academics, they learn that teaching involves both instruction and play, regardless of which school of thought taught them.

It is fine for educators to have a theoretical point of view. (After almost 40 years, I still have one: treat students as if they have a brain. If you want to teach them how to write, treat them as if they are authors. If you want to teach them arithmetic, treat them as if they are mathematicians. They will not only learn to think mathematically, they will—wonder of wonders—learn how to divide fractions.) But we should hold ourselves accountable for the full education of each child, and when we do, we are forced to discover ways of getting our students to learn stuff and love it at the same time.

A crime is committed when experts from one tower or another attempt to impose their ideology on a school and hold the teachers accountable for following an ideology rather than meeting the needs of the students. No Child Left Behind was one of the worst manifestations of this, because a group of politicians picked one ideology and tried to impose it on all schools, using money as both a stick and a carrot. Predictably, it produced poor results.

Is the teacher held accountable for following the curriculum, or for using the curriculum to turn out educated people? Schools that are successful are successful because the professionals engage in the infinitely complex challenge of sending kids home every day knowing more and dying to go back to school the next day to learn even more. Do your children look forward to school opening in September? Do your children complain when you come to pick them up at the end of the day? If not, talk to the teacher. If that partnership doesn’t work, talk to the principal. If that team doesn’t work, band together with other parents and teachers and hold schools accountable for teaching kids stuff in such a way that they continue to love learning. Nothing less deserves the title of education. The rest is mere schooling and deserves the disrespect of students.

Yesterday, I sat next to a father who said: “I don’t think school is for everyone.” I said, “The way some schools are, I agree, and I think it is regrettable. I think school should be for everyone.” Would that there were more teachers like Cheryl who make it so. Cheryl, please write and tell me you are still teaching.

Next week: The revolution we need. For homework, watch Ken Robinson’s two TED talks. (I post on Monday, now.)

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4 Responses to “A Silly Fight in the Sandbox”

  1. Martin Fletcher September 20, 2010 at 7:42 am #

    I think you are right on here, Rick. The debate is so polarized, it is hard to discuss anything about education. There is also the issue of turf. Who gets a voice? You mention your approach is “treating children as if they had a brain.” When I was a youngster, being taken seriously seemed a no win proposition. If I had something intelligent to say, adults would usually react in a patronizing way. Just being interested in a child’s thinking, and showing it, has very important positive effects. I’m so glad you said it.

  2. Rick September 23, 2010 at 5:53 am #

    I have taken kids seriously for so long I forgot it is a relatively new practice, and perhaps one that has taken hold in the home, but not yet all schools.
    Thank you for reminding me. I was taking it for granted.

  3. Pam September 23, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    This current blog led me to thinking about the teachers I’ve had through the years. In trying to remember what each had taught me, I realized that the ones who were the most “fun” and popular with the kids, weren’t necessarily the ones whose teaching content I can still remember. This week I spent some time tracking down an English teacher whom I had in high school, and last night I wrote to him. I thanked him for the important skills that he taught and told him how some of his techniques had guided me in my own teaching. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to let him know how much I appreciated him. Thank a teacher!

  4. Rick September 23, 2010 at 11:27 am #

    Thank you, Pam. I want to hear about great teachers. Next Monday, perhaps. Who were/are the great teachers and why?

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