Sunday, April 25, 2010

Yet Another Day

Anthony is a typical nine year old. He has a deep fascination with Star Wars, bodily functions, and Bakugan. He talks to himself out loud as he plays with his Legos; he blushes and stammers when you mention his crush on Valeria; he can make a sword out of anything; and he is late for the bus.

Anthony likes the bus, even when he doesn't get to sit next to Noah, and it's even better when he gets a window seat. The fifteen minute ride is a giddy mix of laughter, name calling, Pokemon card exchange, profanity (both real and imagined), Velcro rips, and coughing; but, as the bus pulls into the parking lot, the mood changes dramatically.

Principal X is already outside, with his bullhorn, shouting suggestions to the children on how they might more efficiently move from the bus to their classrooms. Anthony ignores these useful suggestions (walk, don't talk, let's go, right to class) and heads straight for the bathroom. He doesn't have to go, but the boys can usually squeeze in a pretty good water fight before class. The door is locked. It turns out that the custodian is absent again and the bathroom doors will remain closed for a while. Now Anthony has to go.

First thing you notice about room 16 is that every square inch of wall is covered. There are number lines, class rules, punctuation cartoons, poems about responsibility and squirrels, target words, the Denelian alphabet, and countless references to state standards; large, incomprehensible, and showing a lack of imagination that would make Soviet Russia blush.

Anthony is barely in his seat when Principal X's voice comes over the loud speaker. He is reminding teachers that it is no longer enough that the child is in the classroom when the bell rings but that they must be seated. Any child not seated should be marked tardy and sent to the office. This is a relatively new rule and, when combined with the wrought iron gate that surrounds the perimeter of the school, gives the place a warm, prisony feel.

Anthony's school takes the 'Vitamin C' approach to teaching. You see, at some point in our history a group of aging hippies decided that it was a good idea to inundate their bodies with massive doses of vitamin c; the premise being that there couldn't possibly be too much of this particular good thing. Shortly thereafter some actual scientists took a look at this idea and found that the body can, in reality, only absorb so much and then quite reasonably discards what it can't use in the form of waste.

The corollary is that every minute of every school day is accounted for, apportioned, and meticulously filled. The white boards of all the teachers have the day mapped out, in that unnervingly precise script that they all seem to possess, according to the chunks of time that are to be devoted to each activity. This is the type of approach that appeals to frustrated, half-bright adults who have long since forgotten what it was like to be a child. The fact that this accumulation of activities, and whatever knowledge they are designed to impart, far exceeds the saturation point of any child is utterly lost on these bureaucratically conditioned go-getters. They are also oblivious to the form of waste that this tact will ultimately produce, while the children seem to have some fairly clear ideas.

Miss D spends three minutes going over the difference between right and left, and adjusting the children's hands, before launching into the Pledge of Allegiance. Anthony was going to sneak the word 'poop' in, but Cassie was watching and she always tattles. Miss D is in a foul mood because they just added a mandatory meeting after school and this, combined with her two other scheduled meetings, will put her squarely in the jaws of rush hour traffic. She is very worried about having a job next year.

Anthony stares at a large, orange reading book entitled: Delights. He is supposed to read a story about a sad dog that doesn't appreciate a healthy diet. In the end the dog is rehabilitated, with the help of some of some wise gophers, and all is well. Anthony thinks he liked it, but trying to translate it into a "story hill" makes his neck hurt. And why wouldn't it? A story hill is just the latest in a long line of well intentioned gimmicks that seem designed to be as unengaging as humanly possible. They are also noticeably ephemeral. Three years ago classrooms were filled with chatter about "text to self" and "text to text" references and three years from now there will probably be multi-colored orangutans spouting various phonemes to the tune of Who let the Dogs Out? in high-def; and, still, no one will know what the hell is going on.

The principal's voice comes over the loud speakers again. He lets everyone know that, although it has been raining a little, they will still have outdoor recess. The children cheer and don't seem to hear as the principal goes on. "So, be careful out there. It is wet and I don't want to see anybody running or jumping or playing on the grass or any of the play structures or with a ball or rope of any kind. Have fun."

For the last three days Elijah has brought a dirty plastic Safeway bag filled with Cheetos and red licorice that his step-father, who clearly hadn't read the story about the sad dog and wise gophers, had prepared for him. He and Anthony quickly gorge until they become dizzy and short of breath and take on the appearance of prom-bound oompa loompas. Then the bell rings and they line up.

In elementary school, no ritual is as reverently observed as that of the class line. The process of getting children into, and then maintaining, a line has taken on all the earmarks of a cargo cult fetish replete with solemn incantation (Is this a line? This is not a line. Is this a line?) and human sacrifice (OK Brenda, go to the office. You will not destroy my line.) And so the children are marched off to Excel.

Excel is one of the many acronym laden programs that teachers are supposed to use in place of actual teaching. They are ubiquitous. They are adored. They are also big business and have mission statements like:

C1. Students will access, use and communicate information from a variety of technologies.
Division 1 1.1 access and retrieve appropriate information from electronic sources for a specific inquiry
1.2 process information from more than one source to retell what has been discovered
Division 2 2.2 organize information gathered from the Internet, or an electronic source, by selecting and recording the data in logical files or categories; and by communicating effectively, through appropriate forms, such as speeches, reports and multimedia presentations, applying information technologies that serve particular audiences and purposes

Much money changes hands and the perpetually bewildered feel productive, but, functionally, these programs are to teaching what a suit of armor is to bowling; painful and irrelevant.

Mrs. G is the mean teacher and when she hears any noise above a whisper she makes an explosive noise that sounds very much like a chicken swallowing a cat. Anthony is terrified of her and, consequently, of math. She also has a gift for making the merely dull seem overwhelmingly complicated. At the end of Excel, her white board is a confusion of arrows, double arrows, sweeping X and O covered arcs, and incomprehensible symbols that have been semi-erased and smeared across basic addition problems. Anthony breathes easier as he leaves her room.

Lunch. For those of you who are old enough, who may remember drive-in movie theaters and the heat-lamped delicacies that awaited you during intermission; you have some idea. For those of you who have had the good fortune to stay at one of our many correctional facilities; you have an exact idea. To spend any more time making fun of the food would be like beating Rush Limbaugh to death with a chainsaw; temporarily fun, but a little too easy and ultimately unnecessary. Suffice it to say that Anthony picked at his half frozen taco pocket for a couple of minutes and then downed a pint of chocolate milk and bolted out for recess.

One nice touch is that teachers have taken to posting standardized test results on the wall. The students are divided into five categories: far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. The student numbers are placed into the column that reflects their testing proficiency. There is one chart for math and one for language arts. Orwell would appreciate the 'language arts' touch; Anthony does not. His number is below basic on math and basic on the other. Even though it is just his number, he knows that every body else knows whose number is whose. If asked, he would tell you he feels defeated.

Miss D is in a much better mood. Her late meeting was rescheduled and the girl's decided it would be a good day for happy hour at Aqui's. She is now in the process of trying to describe the Civil War but becomes flustered when she can't remember whether the North was in favor of or against slavery. Last week she said that the San Francisco Bay was no deeper than five feet at any point. Anthony looks over at Mr. S, the guy who works with the wheel chair kids, and tries to make something of his cringing, angry body language.

The rest of the school day is a blur of not doing art, or music, or having time to digest what one is supposed to have learned. He vaguely remembers attending an assembly, something on the dangers of dodgeball, that was presented by a colorful group of smiling neuters, but can't remember if it happened on that day or another. After school, there is the indignity of homework club and the forced frivolity of KidPlay, and then the late bell rings, adrenaline courses through his veins, and he is back on the bus.

Anthony gets home around 4:00 pm. A thing called a lunchable is on the kitchen counter. It consists of three circular pads of half baked dough that can be covered with ketchup, cheese, and raw pepperoni, to simulate pizza. It also comes with a raisin box sized container of juice, a bag of skittles, and a coupon for Flintstones chewable vitamins.

Anthony puts a disc into his Xbox 360, sits down in front of the TV, and earnestly sets about killing everything that comes across his path.


Mermadia said...

Your latest post makes me once again seriously question whether I will be able to stomach placing G-Funk and The Pirate in public schools.

I'm curious if you have any thoughts on "alternative" theories of pedagogy like Waldorf or Montessori?

While I shudder with revulsion at the thought of the boys in a classroom like you describe, I'm not all that thrilled with the idea of them playing with garden gnomes and balls of wool all day either. Given that we won't be homeschooling a marching Christian militia, it seems like our options are limited.

Pirate Prentice said...

it's a tough one because the type of socialization that they get at a public school is genuinely useful, real world stuff. also, there are good teachers who rise above the state standards in ways that are meaningful. but, of course, teachers shouldn't have to do this. they are shackled. you guys are much better off than most, because a lot of this stuff can be overcome at home, and i'm sure you will take advantage of this. the alternative schools have some advantages, but still must comply with nclb, so they are hamstrung as well. next year, classes are going to expand from twenty to thirty students, so there is no sign of things getting better. i suspect that the best you can realistically hope for is to intentionally counteract some of the less desirable effects of schooling and make a huge effort to contextualize learning. that is where g-funk and the pirate will have a head start. if you can get them to love, or at least appreciate, learning for its own sake, then the rest will take care of itself. sad state of affairs, though.