Elementary School Journal

Is there something I don’t know or understand that would make it easier to accept the kind of indoctrination that goes on in the classroom I’m attached to?

It may be a sort of arrogance born out of my own privileged, creative education that makes me see this place as a graveyard for young minds and souls. I have no proof that my ideals would serve these kids better than what they’re getting. And this may be a kind of toughening process that helps the children deal with the world they’re going into better than my soft, curiosity-based system.

Form and Function/Here is a sloth. State the form and function of the arms. Don’t linger on the image out of interest./Make the point and move on to plants./Review for the test: Function of each part, roots, petals, stamen, leaves, pistil, sepals. Fill out the sheet so we can be done with plants./Later we’ll finish with crawfish and be done with them. /Be still and do your work. The sooner you’re done the sooner we can move on.

Write I come to school ready and prepared to work. Write this 25 times. If you talk we’ll make it 25 more.

What I hear in this is: Boredom is the price of this thing called Education./I am as bored with this as you are. We are stuck here so let’s get through it till we’re released./Learning is important and will make you better people later on./The world is made of dead, isolated parts. The more you master these dead parts to better you are at “school.”

We ask children to obey an external authority that requires them to be quiet, still, and attentive, but we do nothing to help them develop their inner capacity to be quiet, still, or attentive. On the contrary, we paper the classroom walls with posters, slogans, rules, and isolated bits of information so that everywhere their eyes come to rest they find more random data. The sheer quantity of visual stimulation overwhelms the meaning that might be found there and actively counteracts the goal of increasing the attention span. We give students an abundance of data, but no guidance on how to find meaning.

I’ve made some notes about how I might teach these children if it were my position to do so, but I’ll hold back on writing them out. It’s easy for me to smear the well-intentioned efforts of others who have given themselves to this hard work as a career, when I am only a visitor, dropping in and out for short periods. To the extent I fail to acknowledge the affection that’s communicated by the teachers to the students, I ask forgiveness.

Like the rest of us, these children will create or discover meaning in their lives as best they can according to what their spirits, their families, the community and the times allow. If I can breathe life in the classroom, if I can hold them, their teacher, and the school in the light of love and faith, that will be my contribution.


4 thoughts on “Elementary School Journal

  1. In terms of thoughtful and meaningful encounter, your heart is never still…especially when it is quiet. In sharing your encounters with our creative, constantly evolving world, you become my spirit guide💞


  2. I was especially appreciative of the sensory overload in the elementary classroom. Having been on the site-based decision making council when my children were in school, and having been highly engaged with several faculty, I know some of the reasons.

    The main issue is memory. If one looks at the walls there is a tremendous effort to get the children to learn the processes of addition, multiplication, simple geometry, simple grammar, spelling rules etc. This is vastly different from my experience in the 1960s (sixty years ago!) where these things were explained and memorization was required.

    There is a trade off. It is absolutely impossible to be a creative mathematician or to solve simple business problems or, especially, science problems without knowing without thought, the multiplication table. for example. Many (poorly qualified students) arrive in college and do not know the multiplication table.

    It is false that a calculator solves these problems. What students learn, when they use the calculator, is a sequence of button pushes associated with written strings of symbols. People/students/parents/faculty can claim that all of the sensory stimulation about mathematics from K through 12 should have taught students the “idea/concepts” of multiplication and their association with geometry, but it is false for at least 20% of the students.

    I guarantee you that—every semester—I teach business calculus and that about 20% of the incoming students—who have declared business as their _major_ cannot write down a formula for the cost of a rectangular fence where one side costs $10/ foot and the other three sides cost $5.00/ foot.

    C = 10*x + 5*x + 5*y + 5*y (there are many equivalent forms). This is because they do not understand the meaning of multiplication, the meaning of the perimeter of a rectangle (though they can, usually, write a correct definition in words). They don’t see a relationship with area (there is not a simple one unless one interprets graphs with dollars on one axis and length of fence on another…)

    But, when I was in HS, this was a trivial problem and almost no one had difficulty with it. i failed a 6 weeks of algebra II, I did not take senior mathematics and I was just a musician in HS.

    Can I identify the problem? In some cases, the problem is that the student always “received help”. That is, someone did their HW for them and they wrote down the answers. This probably overlaps the 20% of students I encounter, but I don’t think that is accounts for all issues. There seem to be other ideas.

    in any case, to get back to your issue of creativity. If basic ideas are not understood, it is impossible to be creative. If pianists don’t know the basics of harmony and melody, they can’t write songs. If athletes don’t know the basic functions of players on a team, they cannot create a clever play, etc.

    Teachers understand this and one strategy has been to constantly remind students with signs, charts, and repetition—but without writing things down or “memorization tasks”. The ideas “seems” to be, that constant exposure ensures memorization and deep learning. It may work for some students, but I suspect that personal history requires more individualized approaches for many students. This means more money, more teachers and smaller classes. Neither Republicans nor Democrats (who really only disagree over style and content) are willing to pay for that.

    Students are humans and individuals with histories of a wide variety. Each has individual needs. Our society is not prepared in any way, shape, or form, to do anything other than put them all through the same processor.

    So you are correct in your conclusions, but I don’t know how to get basic knowledge into students except via an expensive program of personal instruction.


  3. Bob, that makes sense to me. And in addition to the practical needs, like building a fence, most of the other enjoyments of life such as cooking, music, art, humor, and conversation require a base level of competence before you can be good at them–that level which allows you to get where you want to go without thinking. (Although thinking is also highly recommended at another level.)

    In the Waldorf classroom where I used to volunteer, there was a lot of rhythmic singing and physical patterning of multiplication facts, while division was introduced through simple stories. This may appear kind of fluffy to an outside observer, but one message that I believe was sent to kids there was, Bring your souls to school with you, because we’re here to feed your whole self, not just the part that takes tests. This was the opposite of the soul-killing instruction described in my post.

    I agree that the question is difficult, but I do think we can find ways to help students master the basics without constantly sending them the message that school, and life, is a grim slog.

    Thanks for writing!


    1. Fred, Perhaps I did not explain clearly. I agree with you that the classroom structure can be improved. I think that the current structure results from multiple competing goals and constraints;

      1. The repetitive structure is an attempt to teach basic information that needs to be used in higher level thinking. Examples are arithmetic to do algebra. Later in life, algebra must be automatic to do calculus, after than calculus is needed for more advanced topics in mathematics. The level of need is determined by a final goal.
      1.a. This only partially works, as I indicated in my story about computing the cost of a fence with different rates for different sides.
      1.b. This would be improved if teachers had more freedom.
      1.c. This would also be improved is students were allowed to fail, but stayed on topic long enough to _evenutually_ succeed.
      1.d. Because of state imposed goals for each grade, the very existence of a grade structure, 1.c. often fails. This is complicated by and affected by 1.b.
      1.e. We both agree that 1.b would be a great first step and your example is associated with this issue, if I understand you correctly.
      2. There is another problem—students, parents, teachers—no one, knows what a student’s eventual interests will be, and far less, at least at an early age, what talents a student may have.
      2.a. I have friends, being so old, who grew up in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where early testing in K-12 identified student skills and immediately focused the education of such students in the areas associated with good skills. In both cases, mathematical ability was identified early and my friends were told—in grade school—that they would have jobs as professional mathematicians and go to the very best schools. They were assured of jobs and stability immediately. Both were/are happy with their careers; one in Eastern Europe and the other now in the UK physics department.
      2.b. In the west, especially the USA, it is almost impossible to identify student talents even by the end of HS. Almost all students come to TMU and have no idea what a career in mathematics or really, physics, would mean. Nor do they understand what careers in economics other mathematically related areas mean. They have better ideas about business, writing, and maybe acting. Many want to play professional sports.
      2.c. As a result of 2.b., it would be much better for students (IMO) if there were more freedom for teachers to wander around and not have prescribed topics to teach in every single class.
      3. The big constraints are political. Parents, including many of my classmates who experienced more academic freedom than is currently available, want specific—even racist—origin stories told in history classes. There are many constraints imposed by religious groups, as you well know.
      3.a. It is the set of constraints enabled by the Commonwealth’s constitution and the powers given to the Kentucky Department of Education that allows elected officials to control much K-12 content. It controls the certification of teachers so strongly that, every year, Thomas More Education department must modify their course contents, sometimes removing or adding entire courses, as a result of activist intervention.

      So, finally, I agree with the freedom you propose, but it is constrained by some practical matters (as in 1 and 2), but mainly by political matters as in 3.


      Bob R


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