Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Caging birds: the worst of both worlds

Beth’s comment on Monday’s post really captures the sad irony of today’s schools:

The tragic reality is that our schools don't do anything well. The fact that the humanities are suffering doesn't mean that mathandscience is taught well. The fact that the schools don't have the rigorous content and skills of the traditional approach doesn't mean that they encourage true creativity like the progressive approach.
They just don't do anything right. They've somehow managed to weld together the authoritarian, anti-creative, carrots-and-sticks approach of the worst kind of traditionalism, with the hollowed-out content and mushy thinking of the worst kind of progressivism.
Beth’s words returned to me last night, when I was marveling at some wildly creative white-on-black drawings that my daughter had recently produced at home: scenes teeming with ghosts, birds in flight, and worried children.“Do you ever get to draw this kind of thing at school?” I asked her, suddenly wondering whether the realism requirements that have persisted since kindergarten extend beyond writing (“realistic fiction”) to art.

“During indoor recess we can draw whatever we want to.”

“What about during regular class time?”

“Then we can’t draw imaginary stuff.”

“So during class time, ever since kindergarten, you haven’t been allowed to draw or write imaginary stuff?”

Apparently at the very end of 2nd grade they were allowed to write (and illustrate) a work of “imaginative fiction,” but my daughter ran out of time before she finished her story.

Further constricting her, most of the realistic fiction she’s tasked with producing is supposed to be about her personal life--a requirement she increasingly resents.

“Why do they want to spy on us?”

“They” may know something about her personal life, but her creative potential remains a well-kept secret.


Wendy said...

My daughter makes up stuff in her personal writing so that she can be more imaginative and make the story sound better (I'm talking about simplifying the order of events and emphasizing certain points for dramatic effect). She's in 5th grade. Since I assume that the point is to have students demonstrate their writing skills and not to learn about students' personal lives, I have told my daughter it's fine. Maybe I should heads-up the teacher, though.

Marcy said...

I think that education depends on people. I have been very impressed, for example, with the art teacher at my sons' school. She bucks the cost-cutting trend and regularly has kids working on projects bigger than themselves. She covers the school with their art.
This school is an official "failing" school, but the passion I see in the art and music and special ed teachers is amazing.
I am unwilling to say that no schools are any good, because I can see at a glance that our school DOES do some things well.
Unfortunately, they are tied to the district academic programs like Everyday Math and that ridiculous text-to-self reading analysis.
The things there are no standards for, like art and music, flourish in our school. We are lucky to be in a district where they have not been cut. And we are lucky to have the people with the drive to teach them.

Beth said...

Your school doesn't let kids draw from their imagination? What is this, the thought police?

I honestly don't get it. What purpose is served by this? It's a completely normal part of a child's development to write and draw imaginary scenes.

It's a perfect illustration of my argument. The school doesn't teach content and skills like the best traditional approach, but it doesn't encourage creativity and independence like the best progressive approach either.

Seems to me that especially in elementary school, the goal should be for kids to write about whatever interests them. At that age, just putting sentences together clearly and correctly is enough of a challenge. There's plenty of developing skills to work on.

I've got a sneaking suspicion this is all geared to the standardized tests the kids have to take.

Beth said...

Oh, and @Marcy -- I've been wondering for a while whether the "failing" public schools might actually be better than the "good" public schools. I had to take my daughter out of a "good" public school system after she became severely depressed in 5th grade.

Marcy said...

I love our "failing" school. I was actually happy that it got that status this year because some of the more annoying families took their kids out. The kids that are left are more diverse and more interesting.
We are a poor school in a rich district. It's ideal.

Wendy said...

When I referred to "personal writing," I meant writing *about* herself. For example, she wrote about when we moved from Maine to Massachusetts. She changed some of the details as I said.

She has other assignments where she writes imaginatively (and is encouraged to). In anything personal, it's not that she is told "It has to be true," but she realizes that her teacher will assume her writing is entirely accurate, and she had qualms.

Mrs. C said...

Um... what's really sad is that the students' writing is on display during parent/teacher conferences and I've learned some doooooozie facts about the other kids this way.

Just saying.

Anonymous said...

I can top this. A daily journal entry, on one subject, and on subject only: what I did at school today.

Every day.

In first grade, if she deviated from the subject she got a snippy note home, and if she didn't she got dinged for failing to show enough detail. WHAT detail? It's school! Not much happens there! Her second grade teacher deemphasized it, and just as she began to recover she entered third grade, where she wasn't allowed to do center work (fun stuff) until it was completed, which it never was.

What possible benefit is there on writing such a narrow subject, day in and day out, for five years?

ChemProf said...

I was reminded of the journal I had to keep in 11th grade English. I wound up in the principal's office when I lost my temper and wrote a rant in French about how the English teacher was a "grand personne" or big person (we were reading Le Petit Prince in French, and that's how adults were described, those without imagination). She couldn't read it, but knew it was about her, and the French teacher wouldn't translate it. I did get permission to write fiction after that kerfluffle, plus a pass to see the counselor any time I wanted to during that class...