No Child Left Behind
Leave the Thinking to Us
by Simon Hole
I began teaching fourth grade in 1975 and have lived through many swings of the school reform pendulum. I've listened to the debates and watched the fads come and go. I've also seen points of light glowing where teachers ignore the wisdom-of-the-day and take the time to truly help their students learn to think. As the following story illustrates, I try to devote myself and my classroom to that high standard.
My fourth graders sat in a large circle reading chapter 39 of Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (1990.) Maniac had just found out that the McNabs were building a pillbox in their dining room, a fortress from which they would be able to fight off the hordes of African-Americans they imagined would someday be attacking them. Amy read the last paragraph, ending with, "Now there was no room that Maniac could stand in the middle of and feel clean. Now there was something else in that house, and it smelled worse than garbage and turds (p. 152)."
There was a smattering of giggles. With words like 'turds' I expected more laughter, so I knew the kids could sense the seriousness of Maniac's situation. I waited for the giggles to dissipate and then waited some more. Finally, after letting the tension build, I looked back to the book and softly reread the last sentence, "Now there was something else in that house, and it smelled worse than garbage and turds." Again I paused. And waited. And finally asked, "So, what might have smelled worse than garbage and turds?"
We were using open conversation mode -- no waiting for hands to go up or for the teacher to call on anyone. I expected one of the regulars to start, but after a moment of silence it was William who spoke. "Well, I don't think Spinelli is talking about a thing like garbage or rotting food or anything like that. I think it's the hatred that is causing the smell."
There was a sudden murmur from the group and Renee called out, "Wait a minute. I don't get it. How can hatred smell?"
Before William could reply, Jimmy leaned forward. "Not everything in this book means exactly what it says."
Jimmy's statement cast a glow over our classroom. I typed, mounted, and hung his words on the wall where they hung for the rest of the year. We often referred to them as we read and discussed our books -- another example of how, given permission to talk, our students will find important things to say.
Unfortunately, it takes more than permission to get students to engage in thoughtful, intellectual conversations. There are skills to be mastered and environments to be created. The students must learn to listen carefully to each other and to build on each other's thoughts. They must learn to ask probing questions and to suspend their own beliefs long enough to consider alternative ideas.
To master these skills of discourse, students need to feel safe, to know that all thinking will be honored, that answers need not be 'right' in order to carry the conversation to interesting places. They need to feel they are capable of uncovering meaning and discovering new ideas. They need to live within a respectful environment where ideas are taken seriously and review and critique of each other's thoughts is the norm.
All of which requires immense amounts of time -- time to learn and practice skills and time to create a community of learners. My teaching partner and I work hard to create spaces for our students to talk. The open conversation mode demonstrated in the above conversation usually takes place in the absence of teacher voices. Students often ask for 'chat time': two or three minutes for small groups of students to pursue issues that arise in the books we are reading or questions that come up during the course of our work. Complex, slightly ambiguous performance tasks are assigned that require pairs of students to talk through the definition of a problem and the creation of a solution.
Is it worth it, all this time spent preparing students to think? Given today's climate of standards for everything from Math to Music, wouldn't we be better off using every available minute to prepare our students for the high stakes testing mandated by the new federal ESEA education act? How will our students know which bubble to fill in if they spend their days talking to each other instead of listening to the teacher?
My partner and I certainly think student talk is time well spent, and there is data and research to support our claim. Our students achieve high marks on state and district achievement tests. Better, countless stories like the one of Jimmy and William demonstrate that they are learning to think - to interpret their world, to make sense of it.
Unfortunately, the government's No Child Left Behind Act doesn't seem to care much about thinking -- doing well on tests is what matters. And so the pressure is on to make sure that every possible question is answered correctly. States that allow too many incorrect answers will lose funds. Schools that don't have enough correct answers will be punished. Teachers and administrators who don't bring up test scores will learn to teach the right way or be shown the door.
I wish I could find some positive note within the No Child Left Behind Act. But with the stakes so high, I doubt if state departments of education and local districts will risk leaving it up to teacher and student thinking. So I find myself worrying about not only the future of my students, but the future of my profession. I fear a world where test scores will be all that count, a world where thinking is a skill best left to those in charge, a world where teaching becomes little more than test preparation. I fear a world where the lights of true learning may be extinguished forever.
For More Information:
The National Re:Learning Faculty was sponsored by the Coalition for Essential Schools, Ted Sizer's national school restructuring project, and funded by Citibank. For five years (1990 - 1995) cadres of 20 teachers spent a summer together at Brown University. After extensive training in a variety of skills, including process facilitation, Re:Learning Faculty served as change agents in their own schools and acted as consultants to schools exploring Coalition principles. Although the Re:Learning project is defunct, to learn more about CES, Click here: http://www.essentialschools.org.
Educator Writing for Change is a group of educators convinced that teacher voices have something to add to the national dialogue concerning the rethinking of public schooling. Originally convened by Grace McEntee and Joe Check for a project funded by the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, EWC meets several times a year to share their writing, fine tuning it for publication. Most of the members have spent considerable time within public school classrooms and their writing focuses on life within schools and on their changing practice. Six members recently co-authored "At the Heart of Teaching: a guide to reflective practice" published by Teachers College Press. Click here: Teachers College Press : At the Heart of Teaching (http://store.tcpress.com/
Click here: Educators Writing for Change http://members.tripod.com/