Monday, January 25, 2010

In which poop becomes a metaphor for learning

Lorraine Forte on Eight Forty-Eight, talking about use of time in Chicago schools:
The consortium says that, you know, based on their observations, there's just no way to make up for that amount of time -- you can't be that efficient. I mean, you need a certain amount of time to do announcements, to line kids up to go to the bathroom... You have to do that because it's part of the school day.
Yeah, I guess that makes sense... If Chicago does have a short school day, we might need to lengthen it... Yeah, sure, I guess you do need some announcements... Wait, what? To go to the bathroom? What the hell do bathrooms have to do with lines?

Apparently this is a common practice among elementary school teachers, resulting from the assumption that you can't trust kids to walk down the halls by themselves, let alone to come back from the bathroom when they're done. This, of course, means they need to be accompanied by a teacher -- and since you can't have a teacher going out of the room every time someone has to go to the bathroom, you've got to have kids saving up their poop so they can all go at once.

Let's save the human-rights issue about controlling one's own body functions for another time -- not that I don't think it's significant. Let's also save for another time the question of what this does to our relationships with children.

For now, let's suppose that I take a long time to poop. Way longer than normal people. Would you want your child in class with me, knowing that an average bathroom break takes seven minutes without me or twenty-seven with me? I know many parents would actively lobby to have the slow poopers put in a separate class -- which, depending on the relative number of slow poopers as compared to the number of stalls, could mean that that class spends half the damn day at the bathroom.

Even if that didn't happen, imagine being the one slow pooper in the class, when everyone else is waiting to go back to the classroom. Imagine knowing that every time you had to go to the bathroom, the class would be forced to choose between waiting for your slow ass and moving on to leave you behind. My reaction would probably be to give up on pooping at school altogether. Some other people would probably respond by stretching out that process even longer, until everyone else went back to class, and then taking advantage of that time to themselves, while -- for once -- their slow pooping wasn't the subject of everyone's discussion.

Okay, maybe I'm going a little over the top with this analogy, but there's something here. The point, obviously, is that if you don't maintain the expectation that everyone's going to be doing the same thing at the same time, it doesn't matter whether some people take longer to do some things than others. But when you decide that it's multiplication time, and so everyone's going to be doing multiplication for the duration of multiplication time, then it becomes an issue.

It's the bathroom-line approach to education that led C.S. Lewis to say:
What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence -- moral, cultural, social or intellectual... The basic proposal of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be 'undemocratic.' Children who are fit to proceed may be artifically kept back, because the others would get a trauma by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval's attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.
Despite Lewis's obvious elitism, he has a point. There's no reason we should all have to be doing the same thing at the same time, and to insist upon it is tyrannical. But Dante doesn't actually have to happen in a separate classroom. And the fact that you're reading Dante doesn't mean that you have nothing in common with someone who's struggling with phonics, let alone that you should be isolated from them.

What's truly democratic is to enlist the smart kids, according to their abilities, to spend some of their time helping those who need it -- and also give them chances, without leaving the room, to push the boundaries of their own knowledge. The presence of someone sitting nearby plugging along with multiplication does not actually stop me from thinking about algebra -- and the opportunity to take breaks from my own work to explain foundational concepts in simpler terms can actually help me harness those concepts in more complicated ways.

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