Monday, March 9, 2015

Unsolicited Advice to Parents of Young Kids

The comedian W. Kamau Bell performed here back in November. He was generally great, of course, as I expected from his show Totally Biased and other appearances I've seen. He's adept at afflicting the comfortable.

He said one thing that I disagreed with, though. His young daughter is approaching preschool age, and he and his wife are looking for the right fit for her, now that they've relocated to the Bay area. He said some people recommend they look for a play-oriented program for her, but he knows they need to put her in a more academically oriented program because as a black girl in this society, she needs every chance to get ahead.

I may be garbling his intended meaning, but that's what I took from it.

It makes me think about grit and slack -- how what makes kids successful isn't grit, but the slack to make mistakes. When kids are young, the thing they learn from is play, not drill and kill "academics."

As I wrote yesterday about Ta-Nehisi Coates's experience with school, the only time he was challenged in school was during an ungraded pull-out class, but his parents yanked him from it "because I was screwing up in the part of school that mattered" (grades).

This morning I read a piece called Why Do Some Schools Feel Like Prisons?, one of the more disturbing education essays I've seen lately. The writer coaches first-year teachers in the Chicago area. All too often the schools the young teachers are working in have a complete silence policy for their students, who are almost all students of color:

When you enter these turnaround schools, there is often an eerie silence. You never hear children's voices in the hallways. Rather, you see lines of African-American children crossing the school with their hands behind their backs or their fingers pressed against their lips to indicate silence, and their eyes always facing front.

The monochromatic lines of uniformed children mimic prison lines, and the teachers' efforts seem focused on ensuring that students do not talk to each other and do not walk outside the line….
Including during lunch:
I made the foolish mistake of having a conversation with a table of 1st grade girls when another teacher came over to me and yelled out, "You do not talk during lunch." At first, I thought the teacher was being sarcastic, but it was disheartening to realize after a few minutes that this young teacher, who was white, had been indoctrinated by her school to think that African-American and Latino children should not be allowed to talk at lunch. When the students were given time to actually act like children on the playground, they were often admonished for "acting like animals" when they returned to their classrooms.
And forget about active learning. That's too noisy. Students are supposed to sit in silence, full of grit, and soak up the knowledge intoned from the front of the room.

I doubt that's what the Bells want for their daughter, but they appear to be on this continuum of belief in the way education works: that children are blank slates waiting to be painted by teachers. Instead, children are little people who process and learn naturally by experiencing life, running natural experiments, and interacting with each other.

Kids don't need boot camp; they need art and music camp, recess, and lots of reading. Elementary-level math can be taught in a lot less time once kids are reaching middle school age.

I hope the Bells change their minds about the kind of school their daughter needs. Rote learning is the opposite of what parents in wealthy school districts insist on for their kids.

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