Ten five-year-olds sit in a circle on a carpet sprinkled with a pattern of blue cornflowers. They each silently study a copy of Seurat’s masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. This painting depicts a languid afternoon at a park in Paris during the late 1800’s. It is done using thousands of tiny dots (a technique called pointillism), and the original stands well over seven feet. But for the children, the most enticing thing is all the hidden details. The shadowed man in the trees (who may or may not be Seurat himself), the pet monkey on a leash, the pieces of paper strewn across the lawn, the butterfly. In a moment, the children are asked to turn over their paintings and recall from memory as many details as they can. Over the next few weeks this painting will come to be a part of the collection they carry in their minds, hopefully for a lifetime. And one day, when they visit the Art Institute of Chicago, they will be brought nearly to tears as they stand in front of the original, because when you study something, when you spend so much time with it, you come to love it.
I am twenty-two. I have a class of thirty sixth graders. I am trying to teach math. The children’s desks form a semicircle around the chalkboard, which I am writing on. I hear a sound and turn to see two girls fly across the room at each other. They are pulling hair, biting, scratching, and in a moment the quiet room is in chaos.
In this classroom there is a girl with thirteen siblings, all have different fathers. There is a boy who can recreate a perfect copy of Scooby Doo (or any cartoon character) from memory. His goal is to join The Bloods, where his uncle and father are both gang members. None of this is unusual for an urban public school in the United States. What might surprise you is the first school I described was also an urban school with a similar demographic. However, it was not public. The parents who sent their children there did so at great personal sacrifice. Their tax dollars still went to fund their local (failing) public school, and in addition they paid to send their kids somewhere that did not require a metal detector at the door.
I have been in education in varying capacities since the early 2000’s. I have worked in public and private schools. I have sent my own children to public and private schools and have homeschooled. I can say, unequivocally, that the current state of our public schools is disastrous. However, I understand that going elsewhere is not an option for many parents. So, my question is this: Is it possible to turn the classroom in example B into the classroom in example A? And if so, how?
First, I believe it is possible. Of course, there are hurdles to overcome. Student baggage being one. I am convinced that the key lies in making learning beautiful, meaningful, rich, and alive. Most public schools have a curriculum that is dead. It has neither life nor meaning.
Recently, my fourth grader competed in a speech program at her public school. She spent weeks researching censorship. I was wary as we are in a liberal-leaning, progressive school. But she enthusiastically embraced any criticism that we discussed might stem from this topic. She won first place for her class and went on to a school-wide competition. That week, several teachers and parents congratulated me on what they assumed was her continuation on to the district-wide competition. But although she was the only student who had memorized her speech or done it in the time limit, she had not won. Instead, first and second place went to students who spoke about shark teeth and their favorite Harry Potter novel.
The point I’d like to make is that in most public schools uniformity of thought is rewarded over tackling difficult topics, and a search for knowledge. The issues that stem from this can currently be observed in every level of society.
As a mother of five, I can tell you that children are born with an innate curiosity. They marvel at a broken piece of shell, and the coiled body of an earthworm. They question everything. A teacher can encourage this, or they can stymie it. In most cases, it is being all but annihilated.
Imagine, a seven-year-old whose afternoon is spent in a too-small desk, on a computer, highlighting pronouns. The sky is blue, the world is full of life, but they hardly see it. There is little conversation and even less learning happening. It is not because this child is incapable of learning, it is because the diet they are given is lacking in substance.
Often, we give teachers a pass because there is a specific curriculum they are required to cover. I don’t think we should. Teachers need to rebel against their progressive teacher training, and against the stagnant curriculum. Within these boundaries, there is much a teacher can still do. Bring in a bird’s nest she found on a walk. Create a warm, inviting corner for children to read. Actually recommend books. Tell them they’ll enjoy The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe more than Captain Underpants.
Many teachers have given up on actually teaching. This is not acceptable. Classroom ‘A’ is possible in any setting, given the correct expectations and a motivated teacher. How much richer, more engaging, and life-long will the learning be if we can get back to this. True learning should not be a luxury reserved for families with the time and resources to research and send their children to private school. True learning is a necessity for every child. Teachers, in large part, are responsible for what happens next. If things don’t change, we’ll wake up one morning and our world will be unrecognizable. In some ways it already is.