Thursday, December 21, 2006

More on Teaching Enthusiasm

My favorite cousin- let’s call her Jo- teaches in inner-city Philly. She’s on ‘special assignment’, so lately she’s been teaching remedial math. Except her kids don’t speak much English, so remedial English too. And they hit each other a lot, so remedial social skills. One of her sixth-graders is fifteen- but kids can’t be failed unless their parents sign off on it. Teachers can be forced to change schools every year. The privatization scheme is working very well indeed.

The last round of parent-teacher conferences, only one parent showed up. ‘I’m drunk,’ he confided, ‘and I came from the bar and, I won’t lie to you, I’m going back to the bar after this. But I said I’d be here, so I’m here!’ When Jo tells parents to help with homework, all they say is ‘Ayy! No se puede!!’. They don’t have the time, energy, or resources to be involved in their children’s educations.

The other side of teaching kids to love science is this: it’s easy to teach comfortable suburbanites whose parents will nag them to do their homework. What happens when you teach in a marginal environment?

Is there time for enrichment when half the students can’t read at grade level or add 5 + 17? In sixth grade? What do they need more: to love science or to read? If you only have a limited number of hours and a severely limited amount of resources, what do you prioritize?

These activities aren't necessarily incompatible. Maybe writing could play into the science lessons somehow- short essays, and grade on grammar and ideas. But I think what usually happens is, it's a lot of work; more than the Summer Vacation Essay. Teachers are overburdened with large classes; they don’t want to do innovative stuff. They don’t have time. They don't have money. They are tired. Jo is tired.

What’s the right answer? Is it legitimate to take an hour a week for fun, interesting science labs? I would like to believe in the long run, this will benefit kids more than memorizing spelling words. All the same, especially in the era of Every Child Left Behind, it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade already-struggling schools that a love of science is an essential ingredient for learning.

I believe that science ed is important because scientific critical thinking is more useful than the ability to play the recorder (though music programs are great! Not knocking music!). Still, the skills from critical reading, or history class, may be just as important. I want children to love science because I love science, but is it the most important thing?

When I take over the Department of Education, no school will have to choose. We will have it all: reading, science, music, history, and etiquette. The children will be perfect little darlings.

Until then, it is a difficult problem and a difficult trade-off.


  1. Anonymous7:44 PM

    You should be a teacher. Seriously. That's all I'm going to say.

  2. Anonymous8:32 PM

    Wow. It is so discouraging to hear stories from the front like this. Poor Jo; no wonder she is tired. It must be so frustrating trying to teach kids whose families don't support education.

    My small rustbelt city routinely graduates less than 50% of the high school kids. It boggles the mind. The kids who are 15 in sixth grade are just counting the days until their sixteenth birthdays when they can drop-out officially. It's so sad.

  3. Anonymous8:53 PM

    What you're talking about is what a majority of teachers do to teach those basic standards that need to be met. There are two basic opinions on all this: teach to the standardized test so you can keep your job & not be called in by your boss; or teach basic skills while incorporating areas like science and history. I teach at a middle school in CA where testing frenzy has pushed us to make choices that I don't feel comfortable with; however, I like my job and eating so I do what I'm told. I teach broad topics and go in depth where I can. Today my students told me that I should only give homework twice a month and this was from an honors class. These students will have an AP class within two years.

    If students were limited in their time on MySpace, watching television, and video games learning would skyrocket.

  4. NSLS, thank you. :)

    Sara, Jo's stories are probably the worst of the worst: she gets all the kids who haven't done well in the ed system. So it's way more depressing than my rich suburban HS, but still. And 50%? Urgh. Terrible.

    Anonymous, I don't mean to criticize the teachers: of course you all have to keep your jobs. I don't think the teachers should *have* to teach to the test; my vision is that there should be enough time for enrichment and real learning. If you have anything to share about how to accomplish this (other than turning off the TV, which I fully second; we could watch 30 minutes a day!), I would absolutely love to hear about it. Email link in the sidebar.

  5. Anonymous5:51 AM

    I have a friend who is a high school biology and physics teacher, who after getting her Master's in Education went back and taught at the same high school she went to. She only lasted a year. It is in a rural area down south, and the area has always been poor, but she said that it is like Lord of the Flies there now... the kids have absolutely no parental oversight at all. She was spending more time discussing basic personal hygiene (and I mean *basic*) and social behavior than the material... the kids could not function as a social group of humans.

    She switched to a private, snooty high school in a different area(the move was also linked to a move for her husband's work), and although the kids there drive better cars than her and treat her like a servant, at least they understand the concept of "school" and what they're supposed to be doing there.

  6. Anonymous6:03 PM

    My uncle teaches middle-school math in an (some might say THE) rustbelt inner-city metropolis.

    I still vividly remember his harangue against the curriculum handed down from above, usefully called "Everyday Math." As he said, "Nothing in this book is "everyday" to these kids. IT uses upper-middle class cultural references, blithely assumes every 6-th grader knows how Tennis is scored or golf is handicapped... and alienates most of them.

    And that's math. WIthout which they can't really even do science. What do you do?


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