Sunday, March 20, 2005

Dying Education

Education has become a stagnate institution in the US. With stagnation comes boredom. I have worked in the public school system and have had the chance to see what this has done to our children. I was not an educator and I think this gave me a unique opportunity to see things on the inside and still maintain an outsider perspective. Many times, it is easier to find the faults of a system when you can see it first hand and not be caught up in the mix.

I have seen the effects of standardized testing and the changes in teaching structure that has taken place as a result. The structure changes incur stress to a situation that needs to be more relaxed. It is much easier to grasp information in an environment that is more relaxed and made to be interesting than it is if you feel unduly pressured.

Standardized testing has resulted in a teaching method where you simply cannot expect long term retention of the information being processed. The teach and repeat method is one that has been commonly adopted. It sounds good in theory but when watching it unfold from an out side view, you get the feeling that the student is getting frustrated and loosing interest in what is being taught. People learn in different ways and at different speeds and levels.

On the flip side, teachers lose track of their ability to get involved on a more personal level. Teachers must have a personal connection with their students if they are to get through to them. I recall three teachers that stick in my mind more than any others do.

One, Mr. Hodges, was very much into the interests of his students. He maintained a solid structure in his classroom and still found a common ground with his students. Music was that common ground. Odd thing is, he was a physical science teacher. He kept a large collection of a wide range of music in his classroom. That was his attention grabber. It was the first thing everyone noticed at the beginning of the school year. It gave the students a reason to ask him questions. He used the Q&A sessions to explain lessons and show how music and science work together. It was interesting to find that he listened to all the music that he had. He had his personal collection that he brought from home along with “contributed” music from past students. His collection grew every year and all the students loved to be in his class. We got to listen to what ever we wanted on a little radio that he kept in the corner.

Another, Mr. Koupa, (Yeah, that was his real name) teacher that I had was very open minded to a large range of things. He was an English/history teacher. He encouraged his students to think for themselves. He refused to give his opinion on anything but loved to hear everyone else’s. He also had a strong fascination with music. He told us about the time he and some friends of his went to Woodstock. They were in Houston, TX. and they were just going to pack up the “bug” and drive there. They made it just past Pasadena (About 40 miles from their starting point) before the car broke down. They spent three days camping outside the garage waiting for the car to be fixed. Obviously, they never made it to Woodstock. This story was told at the beginning of the school year. It opened up a personal side and gave the students a chance to feel comfortable with him and to open up more to what he had to say. His favorite phrase was “Think about it”. The reason he gave for not sharing his opinion on things was that he didn’t want to influence any of us to what he thought. He wanted us to be free thinkers and to figure out our own opinions and why we had them for ourselves.

The third teacher, Ms. Morris, was a bit different. I’m not sure how the other students viewed her. I saw her a strong person with a great deal respect that was demanded by her personality. She was a very short woman. In fact, this was in middle school and I could look her in the eye when I was sitting at my desk and she was standing straight up in front of me. She also was an English teacher. She took special interest in me. At the time, I was in a bit of a rut. I had a lot of things going on in my life and she either had the time or took the time to notice. My grades were slipping and I was getting to the point that I didn’t do any of my daily work or home work. I just sat in class and drew pictures on my book covers and when I ran out of space there, I started to bring a spiral note book to doodle in. She looked up my records and asked me to stay after class one day. She told me that she had pull my information and had been watching me. She said that I was a very bright young man and she didn’t want to see me toss my life away. She said that I looked bored in class all the time. She was right and that was part of the problem. She made a deal with me. I wouldn’t have to do any home work or daily work in her class for the rest of the year. Wow! That sounded pretty cool. I was in 6th grade at the time so I was a bit young to catch of to the fact that there just might be a catch. There was. For every assignment that I missed in her class, she wanted me to write a page of a story and I had to turn the stories in by the end of each 6 week grading period. At first, I thought, “is she nuts” but I soon fell into the grove of our agreement. She wouldn’t give me a 100% grade because it was not regular class material that I was doing. She would give me a max of 80% per page based on structure, grammar and spelling. The good thing about this method of resolution is that it gave me chance to open myself up to who I was. The stories were mine. The subjects, characters, settings, spelling….everything! I barely passed her class with a 76 for the year. I have never been that great a spelling and that’s what killed me.

The point of these stories is the impact that personal interaction can have on developing minds. In education, we share information and learn from one another. Teaching methods developed from standardized testing causes that personal interaction to take a back seat in the classroom. Teachers have to concentrate more on shoving information down their students throats than they do on getting to know their students and what makes them tick. In turn, this puts the students in a high stress zone with a feeling that no one is there to help them if they don’t understand what is going on.

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