California English Journal
Learning Life's Lessons
Why is it that we have chosen to be teachers of literature? Is it because we anticipate explicating for the hundredth time what internal conflict is? Is it perhaps because we are enamored with drawing "plot mountain" on the whiteboard year after year after year? Doubtful. Most likely we are instructors of literature because somewhere, once, a piece of literature spoke to us in a way we never thought possible. For me it was The Awakening, for a good friend of mine it was The Day No Pigs Would Die, for many of my students it was Night. Whatever the work was, it somehow illuminated the world for us, drawing us closer to ourselves and those around us. In some instances, it even drew us closer to those who had already passed on.
As I read story after story about students who have struck out in violence, I become convinced that we, as English teachers, have an extraordinary burden to speak to these children through our literature. Do we not already teach values and morals through every story, every poem, every drama that we read? Why then would we not be able to teach tolerance, conflict management, and critical social thinking as well? Granted, teaching these things is not easy. It requires focus, diligence and passion.
My district recently embarked on the remarkable task of mapping out each English/Language Arts course, grades 6-12, using the principles of Understanding by Design (UBD) by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and curriculum mapping by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. The heart and soul of UBD is to identify essential questions (EQ's) around which the entire curriculum focuses. They are big, conceptual questions that cannot be answered "yes" or "no" or with a one sentence answer. Instead, they are thought-provoking questions that require complex answers. There are overarching EQ's, which span an entire year, and unit EQ's. At the end of each unit students must demonstrate a competent answer to the EQ's through a performance based assessment.
The beauty of this kind of unit/lesson design is that it forces us to truly contemplate why we teach a particular piece of literature and keeps us from teaching it "just because we like it." If we only have a particular amount of time to teach, then we are going to choose those pieces of literature that give us the greatest reward. It gives students the opportunity to act on their newly acquired knowledge; to show us they understand the true meaning of the book. It also provides a way to interlace every work together.
For our ninth grade course, we have chosen six units to focus on for the year. Each unit is anchored around a core work ( a novel or play) and then filled out with poems, short stories, and non-fiction pieces. As we began discussing our student population and what we wanted to focus on, it became apparent that we needed to focus on social interactions. For our overarching essential question we chose "How do I interpret my world?" Our unit essential questions (after several hours of earnest debate) were: "How do our experiences shape our worldview?" based on The Odyssey, "When or how do we become more than the sum of our experiences?" based on The House on Mango Street, " What factors cause us to change our world?" based on A Gathering of Old Men, "How do our personal relationships affect our view of our place in the world?" based on Of Mice and Men, "How does the way we interpret our situation affect the choices we make?" based on Romeo and Juliet, and "How does helping other people affect of our view of the world?" based on the Miracle Worker. Students must demonstrate knowledge of these questions by creating a peace campaign on campus, creating a sociogram of the relationships in their life and explaining how those relationships affect them, by creating a life plan based on a career research paper, and planning and implementing a community service project. Perfect? No, but a work in progress, a significant step in the right direction. It has given us a focus to make literature meaningful for their lives.
I believe it is time that we draw on the power of the words we teach, to make them more than just another book. It is time to show our students what we have found--that books are a window to the world. Through them we learn who we are, how we affect others, and what we can be. If we can teach students these things, then surely violence on school campuses will diminish.
About the Author:
Tips to Get Your Year Started Right
Twenty-five years ago, I entered my first public school English 9 classroom in New Mexico, near the border. Contemplating a calm, rural environment, I soon encountered overcrowded classrooms, crumbling facilities, a lack of supplies, gang fights, and school board politics. My youthful enthusiasm just about withered right there and then, but I gave myself a pep talk and searched my educational background for the best wisdom I could find.
Now I am a seasoned veteran, but I still reflect on my teaching practices and philosophy, continually searching for ways to do things better, differently, more creatively. Over the years, I've taken much solace and many great teaching ideas from the critical thinking and cooperative learning movements. I have learned to teach upside down and inside out and see the end from the beginning, while coming to grips with the fact that all of society's problems walk through the schoolhouse door.
When I encounter new English teachers, I am frequently struck by the realization of how hard they are working, often doing much more work than their students, and on a fast path to burnout. They are also overwhelmed by the attitudinal factors they encounter in their classrooms, the social and emotional factors that influence their classrooms without mercy.
What have I learned as a seasoned veteran that might help newcomers in language arts and related fields? Here are ten insights that point the way:
1. Give your best lesson the first day. The first day of class is usually a chaotic mix of paperwork, seating assignments, and interruptions. Even if you have to give a mini-version of your best lesson and finish it the next day, do so. Teaching is akin to show biz, and you must sell the sizzle, not the steak, on that first day. You want them asking for more, dazzled by your confidence and creativity. Besides, because it is your best lesson, you will enjoy it, too. All the better if the lesson involves markers, construction paper, art transparencies, something hands-on to engage even the most reluctant learner. Harry Wong's The First Days of School (Wong, 1998) gives abundant advice on how to get yourself and your students organized and fired up for a great year. Even if you are well into the beginning of the year, much of the advice is applicable.
2. Even your most disruptive class will be mesmerized by the overhead projector. I have promised myself to study this phenomenon some day. Every year I have the "class from hell," and meaningful work on the overhead is one of the few activities that captures their attention. From the moment your students walk into the room, have a grabber on the overhead, preferably in color, but a clearly done black-and-white transparency will do. This "bell work" does not have to be related to the lesson, but can be a great entrée to it. While your students work from the overhead, you can take roll, check admits, and attend to the other clerical duties that teaching demands.
3. Read aloud every day, if possible. Two years ago, I had an ESL class with English I, II, III, and IV all in the same room, 34 students of varying ages and abilities, in a room that was once a counselor's storeroom. Thankfully, I had a plentiful supply of Pacemaker Classics, 90-page classics in almost every title, rewritten faithfully in clear English, with a teacher's guide and books on tape. I chose Cyrano de Bergerac first, a play with many reading roles, appealing to the teenage obsession with both love and appearances. Each day, we did a plot or character review exercise on the overhead, then read aloud and discussed the series of events in the play. I showed the video, Roxanne, with a list of written questions for each day's viewing. The students wrote about their own experiences of love and betrayal and shared them on a voluntary basis. Their voices filled the class every day, and order reigned in room 216.
4. Use one-on-one conferences with difficult students, and get thee to the cum. folders. You only have to teach a short while to realize your college classroom management class did little to prepare you for the real world of emotional power struggles in the classroom. Although "ignore and extinguish" does work for minor offenses, students often lack boundaries, and you must provide them with some. After you have posted and discussed classroom rules, a simple 3-5 behaviors you must have to maintain sanity, you will soon encounter the limit-testers. These students need a firm, fair, respectful opportunity to be heard in a private conference: are they having personal problems? do they need extra help? would a different seat make a difference?
The next step should be calling the parents, but you may receive mixed results. Before you become filled with self-doubt about your classroom management skills, be apprised that the National Institute of Health reports that over 50% of adolescents today have mental and emotional problems. One year I "lived" in the cum. folder room and found a great deal of background information about difficult students that was useful for both understanding them and making appropriate referrals. For example, one student had extremely low test scores and other special education indicators, but her parents refused to have her tested. Both parent conferences and cum. folder information can be eye-opening and take you in productive directions.
5. Make sure your classroom environment says your students are welcomed guests. Maria Montessori taught a powerful lesson about order: kids feel lousy when their environment is out of control. Your classroom, both for you and your students, should be clean, cheerful, and organized. Place items where you use them. Try to have at least two trash cans, to limit students' trips across the room. Use colorful crates and files to store papers. Establish clear procedures for turning in assignments, and keep a file of make-up work and extra credit activities accessible to students. Engage a classroom helper on a rotating basis to help you collect and file papers. If you float from room to room, as many new teachers do, you can at least keep good control of your own materials.
6. Always structure the task. You probably have a clear mental picture of what an A paper or a completed assignment looks like, so model it. I used to think I would get cookie cutter work if I modeled assignments, but I didn't. Modeling what you want helps students to visualize the finished product and uses showing rather than telling. Communicate to students what you expect and why, from paper length to presentational style. Give instructions both orally and visually, to account for different learning styles. The clearer your expectations, the less frustration for both you and your students.
7. Effective teachers can be fair without being equal. As Mendler (1993, 110) points out, "Imagine 10 patients waiting to see the doctor. One has a cold, one has a broken arm, one has poison ivy, one has diarrhea, and so on. The doctor comes out and announces [that] today is aspirin day: 'All patients will be treated equally and given aspirin to solve their ailments.'" In the same vein, your students have individual needs and differences that must be attended to and do not always fit into the neat schema of classroom rules.
For example, I had a firm rule that exams must be completed within a two-hour block, during one of my block scheduling years. Then I encountered a learning disabled student who had been diagnosed as needing additional testing time. I made arrangements for her to take the exam in the counseling center. Our students often teach us the value of flexibility.
8. Invite the real world in. Students learn through a variety of styles: auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile, field dependent and independent. Use snippets of popular music, multicultural offerings, newspapers, magazines, and current events to engage your students' interests and attention. Audio and videotapes, computer programs, manipulatives, guest speakers, field trips, multimedia presentations, and art-related projects help teachers and students make connections between the classroom and the real world. One year I taught in a school that did not allow outside field trips, so I "field tripped" my students to the library, the computer lab, the career center, the agricultural program, and the yearbook photography lab, creating writing assignments for each excursion.
9. The secret to great teaching is to treat people as if they are in your own living room. No, I don't mean you should break out the cocktail wienies and party crackers. To get the most from students, your teaching has to say you are glad they--and you--are there together. One of my students remarked, that unlike her other teachers, I did not give her a cold stare when she was late; I simply marked it on the tardy roster and informed her when she had the requisite three tardies for detention, just as I had announced I would.
Remove physical barriers between you and your students, such as the podium, when possible. Use MBWA: Management by Wandering Around. Sit among your students when reading aloud. Try not to have your back to them, when they enter the room (A transparency grabber keeps you from having to turn your back to write on the board when class starts.) Build a sense of community in the classroom by using "please" and "thank you," starting and ending class on time, and greeting students in the hall, and saying "thank you," when they submit work. End a great hour of class work, by telling your students how much you appreciate their hard work and attention.
10. Take Oprah's advice and renew your spirit. We as teachers are the caretakers of the institution. Our students are transient; they come and go, while we carry on year after year. I have learned two pieces of personal wisdom that have helped me with the emotionality of teaching: 1) you can help people, but you cannot save them; and 2) you can help other people without taking on their problems personally. Before you rush in to rescue a student from some problem, ask questions and get more information. You can renew your spirit by allowing yourself just 30 minutes a day to do something that is only for you, that you enjoy. Follow the time-tested advice of getting adequate rest, eating right, and exercising to replenish yourself. Form friendships at work with upbeat people who share your interests and ignore the soreheads. Laugh at yourself: I love the T-shirt that says, "Some days you're the statue, and some days you're the pigeon."
Keep growing professionally, because you can get totally recharged and uplifted by learning new ideas, seeing exciting materials, and meeting other professionals. Use cross-field training, ideas from other disciplines, as new approaches to your own teaching, e.g., combining art and writing, or the scientific method and research papers.
Twenty-five years ago, I might have lost a good night's sleep when all did not go well in my classroom. I have realized over time that both my students and I are more resilient than one might imagine. I have learned to bend instead of break, to turn problems into possibilities, to try new ideas even when my knees shake and my heart pounds. Teaching is my heart and my mission, and I am determined to bloom where I am planted.
About the Author:
I Spy ...
For a jet-lagged minute I think I'm attending a teacher education conference in Los Angeles because the speaker's call to action sounds eerily familiar. A young college professor, an animated woman in a dark blue suit with a mandarin collar, speaks of the need to make professional development more relevant, of the importance of teacher reflection on practice, of the desire to infuse the classroom with more hands-on learning activities. Time for a pinch, a reality check, a dim sum. Where in the cockeyed world am I?
A glance at the giant imperial red banner above the dais, an adjustment of the plastic audio thingamajigger slipping off my ear, a pause while the Chinese translator figures out how to say diversification and differentiation in English, and I remind myself I am in Beijing for the Sino-American Education Conference, a diplomatic exchange of ideas in the midst of a spy plane sneer-down.
Despite the "sorry" or "very sorry" hostage negotiations elsewhere, 150 American teachers and another hundred Chinese educators are smiling and invoking the same jargon at the lecture and break-out sessions organized by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. It is April 8, 2001, and teachers, university professors, and teacher coaches have come to Beijing Normal University, a picturesque college with lots of willow tree, for two days of presentations planned around the National Board's five core propositions: teachers are committed to students and their learning; teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach them; teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring students' learning; teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from their experience; teachers are members of learning communities.
The Chinese kick off the conference explaining their new educational reform movement aimed at promoting life-long learning and creativity, a tall order in a one-party country where too much critical thinking can lead to an army tank massacre in Tian'anmen Square. "We must be doing something wrong," says a Chinese university professor, "We have top math and science students, but we have yet to win a Nobel Prize." Not only do the Chinese have their envious eye on the big Prize, but also on the future of globalization, the developed world's monopoly on technology, the 2008 Olympic spotlight. While Battle in Seattle warriors might criticize China's willingness to supply cheap labor to world superpowers, the educators at the conference repeat their desire to belong to the World Trade Organization and compete for ever-increasing slices of the green-back pie. "Demands for talent will increase with the high tech industry," notes a Chinese scholar, "We must update our mindset as foreign education resources flow into China." Indeed, China has opened the floodgates to the West and foreign dollars are blanketing the cities with Big Macs, Kentucky Fried colonels, Pizza Hut slices, and Starbuck lattes.
Rubrics, however, have yet to hit the mass market. On the second day of the conference, after National Board Chair Barbara Kelley has graciously thanked the Chinese for inviting us, I run into the Great Wall of Confusion when I deliver a presentation on the backward design model. Start with a standard, create a culminating task, outline the rubric, and deconstruct the concepts and strategies students need to know to complete the task. Not simple in English, let alone a language that has 40,000 characters and multiple tones. One paragraph into my speech, one breath past the reference to a 4,3,2,1 rubric, the soft-spoken Chinese translator, a hip college student with hair creeping down the back of his neck, raises his eyebrows and whispers, "Sorry, so sorry, I don't understand rubric. "What is a rubric?"
"Scoring guide." Maybe my smile will translate the concept. His eyebrows furrow.
Another pause. A cough in the audience.
Finally, he nods and we struggle on in English, then Chinese -- through literacy standards, performance assignments, student work reflection protocols, and issues of equity. Equity? Would the Chinese understand our struggle with disparities?
You bet. Equity is an issue in China, too, where affirmative action (They don't call it that, but a prickly rose by any other name ...) is one answer to disaggregated data, graphs that break down the demographics of achievement. Talk about the achievement gap in China and you're referring to the differences in test scores between students who live in the cities and those who live in the country's vast agrarian heartland, home to 56 ethnic minorities who speak a multitude of languages. "We can't find enough teachers willing to go to the countryside," complains one Chinese educator.
"We have to hire untrained teachers and continue their professional development. We need corrective measures," he says, acknowledging that far more students from the cities attend college.
But not that many from the cities make it to college, either. So for the masses, it's vocational school. Education is only compulsory for nine years, though the Chinese talk about the importance of meeting the needs of the 21st century by encouraging adults to continue their learning either in school or on the Internet. (My guide book informs me that 22-million out of a billion Chinese have computers at home.) For the first time in China's history, according to conference scholars, 10,000 teachers are being paid to return to the university and then spread the wealth back at their school sites.
Whether that new learning will embrace the arts in an effort to bolster creativity remains to be seen, for while China's provinces have some leeway curriculum-wise, the focus nationally is on core academic subjects, morality (tricky word), and life skills. "Every child should know what to do when a bird falls from a tree and is injured," says a Chinese presenter.
Now what would the rubric for bird first-aid look like?
Rubrics aside, the Chinese are well aware of the criteria their teachers need to meet to advance on the pay scale. Several days after the conference, during a meeting with a trainer of principals, I wonder aloud. "What happens when veteran teachers are resistant to change?" The principal, a middle aged pleasant-looking man in a tailored white shirt, looks at me quizzically and explains that this is not a problem in China because salary advancement is based on teacher exams on knowledge of content area and educational theory. (In another break-out session, the Chinese add that teacher advancement is also tied to student performance.) Could it be that you have to travel to a communist country to find merit pay for teachers? My eyes glaze over when the principal of principals says they modeled their teacher accountability system after the American "management by objective" approach in the world of finance.
No wonder Chinese teachers keep asking the same question following my presentation on standards and teacher evaluation. "How does a teacher get fired in America? What does a teacher have to do?" An American delegate from Philadelphia stands up and smacks his hands. "This," he shouts, "A teacher has to do this." (smack, smack)
Laughter. Looks of disbelief. Could this really be the standard for teachers? As long as they don't spank a student, they can still teach?
"That's right," confirms another American delegate. "You practically have to do something violent."
"But how do you get evaluated?" asks a Chinese teacher. "What is the criteria?"
From the Chinese lens, America is looking pretty fuzzy now in terms of teacher assessment. Could it be that the tables have turned on the subject of clear expectations? In some states teacher evaluation is this. In others it is that. The common denominator seems to be whether an administrator can discern evidence of logical planning during a rare classroom visit.
Certainly, the Chinese know about planning. Classes in China are huge by American standards; 48-50 students per class, even in the first grade. But teachers only teach two to three classes a day, the rest of the time reserved for collaborative planning of well-crafted lessons, selection of assessment measures, and close scrutiny of student data. New teachers are mentored for three years. Taxi drivers (of which there are plenty) reportedly earn more than teachers in China, though teachers enjoy higher social status and greater stability.
During our two-week sojourn in bi-polar (capitalism here, communism there) China, we tour several schools, pausing to observe classes at all levels. In English classes (which students begin taking in first grade) we enjoy the same highly engaging lesson in two eighth-grade rooms at a middle school on the outskirts of Beijing. In a crowded classroom, with desks close together to facilitate collaboration and peer assistance, students in blue and white uniforms prepare for their upcoming group performances. Ten minutes into rehearsal, the teacher signals for the first group to take the stage.
Two girls, supposedly waiting for a bus, strike up a conversation sure to win feminist high-fives. "What do you want to study in school?" asks one. "Physics," says the other, "What about you?" The first girl grins. "Math." Two boys wander along and become the focus of the girls' attention. "Want to go to the movies?" the girls ask, not at all hesitant about usurping what in the U.S. might be considered a male's role. "Sure," says one of the boys, "I have twenty-dollars from babysitting."
Wait a revolutionary minute. Is this dialogue lifted from an American English language textbook? Not a chance. Students use a book that affirms Chinese holiday traditions involving festivals where families eat moon cakes, a Chinese sweet, on a "happy autumn day." Drawing on dialogue from their text, students offer comical, atypical scenes of life in the United States. In another class an English teacher launches her lesson with an idiomatic expression foreign to even the American visitors, for none of us have ever heard of the British phrase "above the salt" which connotes high social status.
What impresses me about the first class we observe is the level of student engagement. Even though the class is huge, virtually all of the students are on task, first planning their skits and then performing them with props and stage directions. (Thank God, there is one girl coloring in the back! Otherwise, this American teacher might develop a serious inferiority complex.) With hair cascading down her shoulders, dressed in a pink vest and casual pants, the Chinese teacher is a lovely woman in her early thirties whose style is gentle, yet commanding. During a fill-in-the-blank exercise modeled on the overhead, the teacher praises her students when they respond correctly. "Good job, good job," she assures them. "You are a very smart class."
Throughout the period, the teacher encourages students to merrily celebrate their successes, joining in as the students bounce their thumbs on their desks and shout, "Great! Great! Great!" This practice of continuous positive reinforcement is rippling down the halls, surfacing in a number of classes where teachers know the power of warranted praise. Also evident is the systematic use of a church favorite -- call response.
"Good morning, class."
The class stands. "Good morning, teacher."
A nod from the teacher and students sit down. Later, from the teacher's lips we hear ... "I scream."
The students respond with a feverish, "I scream."
"We all scream ... "
"FOR ICE SCREAM," shout the students and teacher together.
Next comes the singing ...
"If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands ..." Two claps, two taps and onto the next song.
"We wish you a merry Christmas and..."
"Bingo was his now, O ..."
Smiling students belt out the lyrics, hoping to impress the Americans.
"Welcome to our country. Do you like it?" asks one of the students when the singing ends.
"Of course. Yes, it's beautiful," we tell them, savoring their smiles, the bright pencil boxes sitting on their desks, mentally noting the giant indoor swimming pool at our five-star hotel, the wide bicycled streets of Beijing, the Chinese pearls and parasols we gobble up during frantic shopping sprees; then glancing at the mops and brooms on the tenement balconies viewed from the classroom windows, and finally recalling the outrage on the face of the beggar children who clamp onto our shirts and shout, "Give me a dollar!"
We take a picture, American teachers and Chinese students arms around each other, and once the students are out of their seats, posing and mugging on the class stage, they loosen up and giggle and act almost as relaxed as their American counterparts might.
A click of the camera. A ring of the bell. A run for the yard.
Hundreds of students stream out of class, out the school door, and instantly line up ten feet behind each other on the asphalt. A male P.E. teacher barks orders over a microphone and the synchronized marching and arm dancing begins. It's like watching abbreviated Tai Chi on fast forward. A red, white and blue sea of swaying. Only students who are achieving at high levels wear the red scarves.
The Americans stand around taking pictures of something they are convinced they will never see at a public school in the United States. Is it a mind control technique or a brilliant discipline strategy? We're not sure, but some of us think American students might focus more if they practiced similar synchronized movements.
Back to class, this time it's math and the teacher, a sage on a stage, is drawing geometric shapes on the blackboard and calling on students to stand and explain the solutions to various problems.
An American colleague buys a copy of the math textbook to see if she can solve the mystery of the Asian success story. She tells me the book differs from math texts in the U.S. Instead of offering a multitude of relatively simple, repetitive practice problems, the Chinese textbook includes five complex, increasingly more rigorous, problems in each chapter. This makes sense to my colleague who adds that another one of reasons she thinks China's youth is so adept at math is because parents in China teach their children to add and subtract before preschool. Math is a family affair.
On the bus back to the hotel, several of us discuss the impact of high expectations on student achievement. China is a country of high expectations, perhaps because of the government's one-child-per-family edict. No room for slackers there. It's a one-shot deal. How different would our country look, we wonder, if we held equally high expectations for our youth?
Several days later, during a tour of a model science and technology school in Shanghai, the subject of high expectations pops up again when my husband and I meet with two high school seniors majoring in physics. "Do your parents expect a lot from you?" I ask the girl, a shy serious student. "Of course," she says, "I am their hope." She wears the plain dark clothes so often seen on women in anti-fashion China, but her eyes shine when she talks about listening to the Back Street Boys in her spare time, the little she has. She tells me she spends four hours a night on homework.
"Do you study on weekends too?"
"Of course." She looks at me like I've asked a bizarre question. "What a great opportunity," she continues, "there's so much time to study then."
I am in culture shock. Her comment jars me even more than the array of Chanel perfumes and Gucci bags at the mall near our hotel. Doesn't she have a social life?
What about dating? "We are forbidden to date in high school," she says, shocked that I would even suggest such a thing.
We turn to the boy and chat about Michael Jordan, about the Chinese center playing for the NBA's Dallas franchise, and about basketball's increasing popularity in China (One boy earlier boasted that the Chinese were getting taller.) And then there is a lull in the conversation, a few seconds of silence, dead time I want to fill, so I think, think, think what-can-I-say-now thoughts, and blurt out a question I want to retract the moment it escapes my lips.
"So do either of you have any brothers or sisters?"
A sudden breath. A gasp. An uncomfortable smile.
"None of us have brothers or sisters. We are a generation of only children." The boy looks at me as if to say, "Where have you been woman?"
He clarifies the matter, explaining that because their parents had only one child, the next generation can have two children and still qualify for government benefits. The government issued the one-child per family edict in the 80's, a response to the swelling population resulting from Mao's "the more the merrier" attitude.
I recover and change the subject. "Do you enjoy school?"
"Yes, except for the exams," he tells me. They must study hard to get ahead because "China is still a developing country." I flash back to our Chinese local guide lamenting all the time and brain power China wasted during the Cultural Revolution when Mao closed the universities and exiled intellectuals to the fields to de-elite (sounds like delete) themselves.
"It's hard to remember China is still developing when you're in Shanghai," I say. "There are so many skyscrapers." And there are. Eighty stories tall. Modern monuments of mirrored glass with space needle rooftops that tower over shanty town slums.
More talk about education and then the boy says something I've heard before.
"We (the collective "we") are working on creativity."
I take that as my cue to explore the context of China's latest educational reform movement.
"What kind of writing do you do in school?"
"Have you ever written a story or poem in high school?"
The girl and the boy draw back and shake their heads.
Perhaps, I need to rephrase the question. Even high schools in the U.S. can become essay mills.
"What about in primary school? Can you remember ever writing a story or poem then?"
More head shaking. Nope.
I try another avenue on the road to creativity and critical thinking. "Do you ever debate in class?"
"What is debate?" the boy wants to know.
I pause, not sure how to frame the explanation. I want to give him an example, a provocative proposition, but not one that's too provocative in politically raw territory. I can't think of any examples except ...
"Let's say the government tells parents they can only have one child." (Ouch, why did I have to pick that one out of my Mao cap?)
I turn to the boy. "You argue in favor of the one-child policy. And you," I tun to the girl, "argue against it. If your school had a debate club, you'd challenge another school and debate a similar topic."
They laugh, a little uncomfortably, and tell me without a drop of doubt in their voices that China does not have such debates.
But I wonder how much longer China can silence debate. Is it possible to open the doors wide to foreign investment, to privatize large sectors of the economy, to sculpt an educational reform effort focused on reflection and creativity without encouraging people to think critically and voice the hard questions. During my two week stay in Beijing, the lack of intellectual freedom and civil liberties smacks me in the face when I go on the Internet at the Nanjing Hilton, hoping to access the web sites of Amnesty International, a human rights organization critical of China. Each time I try to enter one of the regional sites, I am foiled. Click. Can't connect.
Click again. Can't connect. Click again. Can't connect. Forget Amnesty International. Search something benign. Search "cats" or "schools" or "vacations." Can't connect. Clearly, Big Brother web master has shut me down on all fronts.
I am reminded of our outstanding Chinese tour guide whom the government will not allow to visit the United States until she is married, and can leave her husband and child behind as collateral.
But as our jet leaves the runway and I tape record my thoughts for National Board posterity, I know one thing. China and the U.S. have a lot to learn from each other. Let us incorporate their teacher mentoring and accountability system, their emphasis on collaborative planning and positive reinforcement, and offer them our strategies for encouraging critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity in the classroom. Perhaps the continuation of this dialogue, of this "People to People" exchange is more powerful than all the weapons in the world.
I recall the beautiful Chinese school children who ran to us in droves, smiling and giggling in awe as they asked for our autographs and held up their colorful note pads. And I think in my most reflective moments ...
Don't give me a spy. Just give me a plane.
About the Author:
When Children Run Amok
Through a series of interviews with police officers, prosecutors, psychologists, parents and the boys themselves, The New York reported on patterns that seem to be emerging. Every case involved a boy who felt inferior or picked on and who held a grudge against some student or teacher. "The attackers complained of being fat or near-sighted, short or unloved. Most of the assailants were suicidal and of above-average intelligence."
Adolescence is like this. Schools are full of relatively miserable ugly ducklings who somewhere between the ages of 12 to 17 find the help they need to become, if not swans, decent-looking ducks with a couple of good friends. What made these boys so impatient for an instant solution to their discontent that they would bring an automatic weapon to school and open fire? I think about all the teenagers I have known over the years with so many good reasons to be unhappy. I wonder what it would take to send one of them over the edge.
All of these student killers sent out warning signs, often in writing, threatening violence. Kip Kinkel read a journal entry aloud in his English class about killing fellow students. Barry Loukaitis wrote a poem about murder that ended with the lines: "I look at his body on the floor, / Killing a jerk that deserves to die. / Ain't nothing like it in the world, / But he sure did bleed a lot." Were the adults in these boys' lives all so preoccupied that no one noticed? Did they think the boys' obsession with guns was just a passing fad like playing Mortal Kombat?
In these adults' defense, it can be extremely difficult to distinguish between a recreational use of rap music or pierced tongues and dangerous levels of involvement with violent pop culture. What I worry about is the presence of a powerful cultural influence persuading children that violence is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with strong emotions. If you don't believe me, just listen to the words on any Wu-Tang CD. Every album comes with a parental advisory for explicit lyrics stamped clearly on the cover but parents, myself included, continue to let children fill their heads with this rubbish. Why? Because it's too much trouble to argue and besides, they couldn't really mean what they say, could they?
One pattern is clear. The young killers were able to acquire high-powered guns with ease, often with their parents' knowledge. If these shootings do not make every parent who has ever given a child a gun take it back, there will be no way to end the epidemic. All the metal detectors in the world will not keep weapons off campus if a student is determined to bring one in. Remember the killers' above-average intelligence profile. With a new school year at hand, let us all redouble our efforts to reach out to alienated students and find a way, busy as we are, to hear their cries for help.
VIOLINS or, VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS
"To have done more hurt to
a man, than he can, or is willing to expiate,
in California's schools has become a popular topic in our electronic
media saturated culture. Depending on the various outlets,
Anyone who has spent more
than a few minutes watching, listening, and absorbing the dynamic of
life in the schools knows that the public
Our schools are to some extent a reflection of our society's expectations.
The United States of America
has been for some decades one of the two or three most violence prone
societies in the industrialized world. Some
The California Department
of Education has tried to quantify and thereby clarify the relative
safety of California's schools in its February 2001
The Internet is also splattered
with informational websites that obsess over school crime statistics.
Two examples, the Center for Disease control
The United States of America
is and has always been a violent society. We civilized the continent
by wresting it from savagery through force and
The 1860s especially allowed us to invent a tragic myth of our rebirth of freedom. Recurrent controversies over the Confederate Stars and Bars remind us of our violently held beliefs.
Californians have inherited
a violent tradition (our state flag bares itself to a certain kind
of republicanism), borne on a fantastically
In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville
noted a violent energy lurking beneath the American restlessness. Less
than three generations later Frederick
We know that repressed anger and frustration have stalked our campuses and schoolyards for a long time. What once might have passed for misunderstood, Romantic, youthful rebellion, the stuff of D. H. Lawrence and J. D. Saliger novels, Scott Fitzgerald short stories, or Millay sonnets, seems more immediate, more threatening. Artistic portrayals of of youthful angst only two generations old seem vaguely quaint, almost sepia toned in their distance from contemporary kids' anxieties about growing up. Imagine the violence at Paducah or Columbine in Up the Down Staircase or A Separate Peace.
How do we explain that the
most materially successful culture in history has produced so much
anger, frustration, disconnectedness, and alienation