Broken Schools

As I sat tonight watching the news and listening to the Governor talk about how his 5 year budget plan will eventually give money to education followed by a clip of a teacher stating how 5 years may be short in government-budget land, but in school 5 years is a long time, and a lot of students.  When I turned off the tv and started to brush my teeth the thought popped back into my head…….’If only I could open my own school…..’
Now before I go much further I should state that there are some basic things that I feel are true:
1)   Every teacher I have ever met truly wants his or her students to succeed. (I know there are duds out there in the teacher world – but the teachers I have met are amazing)
2)   Every politician that makes a claim about education or has a plan for education is doing/saying what they think is best for education.  I don’t believe any politician is out to purposely sabotage education – even though it can feel that way.
3)   The current US public school system is failing most kids – no one is singularly at fault…. it is a combination of society, family, politics, and ignorance.
4)   I believe that all the current popular proposed solutions to ‘fixing’ education are headed in the wrong direction at neck breaking speed.
5)   I do NOT believe that I have the perfect answer – I do realize my dream school fantasy has it’s own weaknesses on a small and perhaps even larger level.
6)   I believe our strength in education should be in the diversity of the students and teachers.
7)   There is nothing as unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.

With those basics out of the way I will continue on my hopefully somewhat organized reasons, thoughts, concerns and proposed idea.

One of my first frustrations (of many) is that those who make the rules and regulations about teaching generally do not have a background in teaching. (I would say that most probably don’t but since I have not done any fact checking I will make it a general statement).  I find if very difficult and seriously concerning that someone is making crucial decisions about education without having enough knowledge.  I would never call a plumber to ask about a heart attack and I would never go to a cardiologist to unplug my backed up drain.  So why in the world are people who have more of less no idea what goes on in a classroom making decisions and choices?!  Now, I realize someone probably needs to do it – but perhaps asking teachers would be a good place to start.

Teachers are not dumb people – they are full of hope, problem solving ideas, and are incredibly resourceful – Ask them what could go better.  As I said above I believe every politician is doing what they things is best – and on paper I would agree with their plans.  No Child Left Behind on paper was a brilliant idea – however the problem comes in where children are not perfect.  Children are beautifully diverse and will never fit into a mold.  I would venture to say that most standardized tests look for kids to fit a perfect mold – it’s NEVER going to happen.  So, perhaps instead of trying to cram everyone into it and penalizing schools/students that don’t fit --- we offer different molds.  You wouldn’t head to a bakery to shop for a cake and expect to see only one choice – that would be silly.  You would expect different sizes, different shapes, and flavors for different occasions.  Why should education be any different?!  The world is diverse, students are diverse – why try and make all education the “SAME”  -- why not embrace the diversity?

So here is my thought.  In college we are taught about multiple intelligences and how we should embrace them and really help kids learn through how their brain works.  Well, after three years in a strong public school – I am here to tell you that normal classroom teachers are not given the time to really embrace this idea.  Yeah they hit the kids that are oral and visual learners – but what about the rest of them?!  I don’t believe it is because the teacher is lazy or doesn’t care.  I think the teachers spend so much time trying to keep up with curriculum in between teaching social skills and testing/assessing students that they frankly don’t have the time. 

This more or less brings me to another issue I see – standard curriculum.  Let me clarify – the idea of having the same basic ideas being taught doesn’t bother me – its making every teacher and every student do it the same way at the same speed that I take issue with.  Now, I absolutely love being an art teacher and one of the things I love about it is making up my own projects.  The district I work in, the art teachers share a curriculum.  All the students will do clay, printmaking, drawing, painting, 3-D sculpture – within each of these categories students will learn different techniques, and basic art skills.  How each teacher chooses to teach these is up to them.  Does that mean that one building might have stronger drawing students – sure.  Maybe one building will be better at critical thinking, perhaps another building better at composition.  I don’t see this as a weakness but rather a strength.   I see strength in diversity – each person bringing something they are good at.  If everything was the same not only would things be boring, but our world couldn’t exist as it is.

Lets get to my original thought about having my own school.  My dream school would be a delicate balance between embracing what students are naturally good at and also being well rounded.  I believe that everyone should be able to read, write, and do basic math – however, I don’t feel the way we are going about it makes much sense.  (How many times are youth told to not take music or art because they won’t become a famous artist?  However, no one looked at me while I was in the middle of AP stat and said, ‘Amanda you are never going to be a Mathematician)  So here is my thought.  Open a school (I’m thinking elementary school) and embrace the whole idea fine arts meets strength in diversity.  I’d hire teachers that are passionate about teaching – I’d ask them to set up a plan much like the art teachers.  They would decide (with some research) what the kids need to know about by the time they leave the school – it would be up to each teacher to decide how to teach that.  For example if they teachers decided students should know about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving – then that would be the topic, but all the bits and pieces would be up to the teacher to decide.  How it’s taught, what project/exploration they would do, if they would focus on the food or the meeting of the Indians….  All the students are learning about Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, even if they learn different details.  I, again, see strength in this.  There is SO much to learn in our world that we can’t expect everyone to learn all of it – if everyone has bits and pieces we will actually know more as a collective whole.

Now, if there is a classroom teacher reading this and freaking out about having to come up with lessons for everything on your own – keep reading.  My other thought is to have the teachers teach what they are passionate about.  There are some teachers who are awesome at breaking down and teaching Math, others writing, and even others that somehow manage to teach kids to read.  Let the teachers teach their strengths.  I have observed in classrooms and seen that some teachers can teach math, but they are really amazing at language arts.  So instead of having a 4th grade teacher – you’d teach reading/language arts.  Now, this isn’t brand new – middle school and high schools do this across the country – I vote we do it in elementary as well.

So the teachers in my school are teaching a subject or two they are really awesome at.  Now comes the students.  I think we should embrace how the students learn and their interests – now in saying that I do realize that just because there is a student who could honestly play basketball ALL day – doesn’t mean they get to.  However, I do believe that students do need far more physical activity and fine art programs.  In my school, much like high school, students would get to pick what type of physical activity and what type of fine art.  The choice is not physical OR fine art – it is a choice within each subject.   So for example for physical activity maybe they get to pick between a specific sport, generic P.E., or dance.  These classes would not be ‘special’ but something that would be a significant part of their day everyday.  I believe student brains need a break from sitting and listening – to up and doing, up and creating.  I have seen SO many students succeed in my room only to hear that they can barely read, or have such bad behavior they are rarely in their normal classroom.  I would love to pretend that it’s because I am some magical teacher – but in reality it’s because I teach art.  Students need a place to create, to make mistakes, to talk, to take chances, to ask questions – they need a place EACH day where they can succeed.  Often those kids who struggle else where, they get relief in my room once a week for 45 minutes.  How sucky would it be to work EVERYDAY for eight hours and only feel competent once a week for 45 minutes?  I’d quit – but yet we don’t understand why that student can’t make better choices?!

 I would want to tailor the education to each student the best I could.  I would do my best to get rid of grade levels and place kids where they need to be according to their skill.  Just because a kid is in 4th grade and barely reads at a 2nd grade level shouldn’t mean they head off to 5th grade where they can’t read the material.  Lets have the kids not only go to teachers who teach what they are best at – but group the kids by ability.  So maybe they are in a ‘higher’ math group and a ‘lower’ reading group.  Again this isn’t a new idea.  Some people would think this is so horrible and the kids will feel bad about themselves – I’m here to tell you those kids feel bad about themselves anyway.  I was one of them.  It doesn’t matter what grade level they are at – they know they are behind and that they don’t get it.  Putting them in their correct level and really working on strengthening that deficit is what that kid needs.  It’s embarrassing to be the kid behind whether they are in a lower level with other ages or in the same age but completely lost – so lets at least do our best to actually help them.

I have been helping a 4th grade student in math all year.  She is a bright kid, great personality, but quickly becomes sullen when she doesn’t understand her math homework.  This girl is not dumb – but math is confusing for her.  The math curriculum the school uses goes too fast for her and jumps around too much.  It broke my heart so much one day that I told her my story.  That I have a learning disability and that I spent a lot of time close to tears and feeling stupid because I just didn’t get it like everyone else.  I told her that I had help from an adult as well – a tutor for 7 years.  I told her that she too will understand it soon, even though now it doesn’t make any sense.  Then I said something to her that I will never forget – “You just got to get through this.  It will get better.  You will find something in high school or college and the world will make sense to you – but for now you just have to get through all this sucky stuff”.  After I said it, it dawned on me that this is exactly how we are failing kids.  No student should have to do what I did – suck it up till college?!

I spent most of my schooling in frustrated tears and clenched jaw because it never made sense.  I always felt 4893209 steps behind.  I tried to listen, I tried to ask questions….. I never felt that I was good at anything.  I liked art, band, and singing – but those were extra.  I sucked at everything that was ‘important’.  It wasn’t till college when I discovered that I belonged in the fine arts.  It was perhaps the second week of my weaving class when I realized that I was one of the few students who did not struggle with the concepts or ideas needed to measure out yarn for a loom, dressing the loom, or even creating patterns.  I was home – art was where I belonged.  I decided to become an art teacher.  Not only do I have a knack for spatial things, but also interacting with youth.  I took all sorts of classes and suddenly the world made sense.  I was learning like everyone else – this is what it felt like to succeed, to ‘get it’.  It took till the spring of my sophomore year in college to get there.

I long to see what school would have been like for me had I been in an elementary school where art was not a ‘special’ but treated like reading and math…. Perhaps reading and math still would have sucked –but at least something would have made sense.  I would have succeeded at one thing, felt smart and confident about one thing each day… instead of casting off the stuff I was good at because it wasn’t ‘important’.

I believe that the way politicians are proposing to raise the standard of education is wrong.  It is not in how teachers are paid, it’s not about standardize tests, it’s not even about money – it’s about how we structure our schools and what we deem important.  Instead of trying to make every school across the country EXACTLY the same – embrace the diversity, the innovation.  If every school system had schools that focused on teaching everything through different intelligence then maybe kids/parents could find a school that best fit them.  A school that teachers all normal things but through music, art, physical movement…….  If we embraced the diversity in our schools the same way we do in our country – I think we’d see an improvement. 

Companies are asking for innovative thinkers, problem solvers – show me a standardized test that accurately measures these tasks, I don’t believe one currently exists.   One cannot measure creativity, problem solving, or critical thinking – it’s much like the wind: you can feel it and you can see the effects of it – but you can’t actually see the wind.  Grading schools based on how well they test is measuring nothing about these needed skills.  We need a reform in our public education that is as diverse as the students that are in it – instead of trying to make everyone the same.
And just as a side note --  Since when has art not been a crucial part of our society.  I don’t understand how the arts always get cut first and how they are so incredibly under funded!  If just for a week we took away anything that was design, art, music related – we’d be left with food and fire.  Every commercial, radio station, book, computer, phone, vacuum, commercial, movie, car, prescription bottle has been designed by some ‘artist’.  If anything we should be pushing kids to be better artists instead of telling them they’ll never make it as one……   I don’t think I will ever understand.


A View's View said...

Fantastic thoughts! Thinking about how to balance what students need to know with how they discover it is an overwhelming thought that can't be decided by a small group. I love the thought of fostering innovation and creativity all while challenging individuals at their instructional level.

Thank you for stretching my thinking! We are losing quite the quiet influencer in our building!

Megan said...

I think you should write this in letter form and send it to a congressman. I think it might give them some really great insight they probably don't have.

Amy Bee said...

Bravo, Ms Novak, bravo! I'm at my computer clapping and giving you a standing ovation! Clearly one of your strengths is also writing.