Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Killing the Magic

A friend asked me to elaborate on my statement that "the classroom is about the best place to kill the magic. It's built into the system to kill the magic." I wrote that. Now I have to reason out if and why I think it's true.

So I'd better start with the easy part:  the magic. When a child is bright-eyed and enthusiastic about a subject (caterpillars, rocket science, Mayans, or ballet), wants to explore it, and peppers you with questions you can't answer about it, the magic is in him. He may feel that way about only one thing at a time, but it's joyful, optimistic, focused. And for the record, this "magical" enthusiasm is possible in the high school years. It's possible in adulthood, until a person's dying day. We should accept that engrossed enthusiasm for a subject is the norm in education. We jettisoned this assumption decades ago.

Elementary teachers will say they see this fairly often. That's because the magic hasn't been crushed in young children yet. In 2nd grade, you can ask the bright-eyed child what his favorite subject is, and he'll tell you. By 7th grade, he'll snigger and give a snide answer. By high school, he doesn't even quite understand the question anymore. "Do you mean what I plan to major in, in college?" he might inquire. Because by high school, education isn't about what you like anymore, much less what you love. It's about what you can specialize in to make a lot of money. I know this because I've talked to seniors whose parents have gently pressed them for two years to improve their grades and pick a school with a good department in a lucrative field. What you enjoy -- what you once found "magic" in -- doesn't matter anymore.

Alright, before I get off-track, I must turn to why, particularly, the classroom setting kills the innate enthusiasm that almost every human has for some subject. First, lets talk about school subjects. it makes sense that the fewer subjects a school teaches, the fewer students will find magic in their studies. A school ideally should offer as broad a range of subjects as possible. This is why a moderate exposure to things as diverse as cooking or astronomy or Greek mythology or jazz music should be offered at some point. The more they offer, the better chance that every child will find his delight. But few schools can do this. The more that schools "cut back," the more the magic is cut back too.

 Have you ever spoken with a kid who exclaimed about the 3 weeks he got to study ______________ (fill in the blank) at school, and then suddenly it was over? He was so happy for that time, and then it was back to drudgery. That's because the classroom regimen requires the teacher to move on, to cover the established curriculum, to give all the kids the same education in the same way. That's called fair.

The teachers are not to blame; the administrators are not to blame, nor the parents, and certainly not the students. They've all bought into the classroom model, where all the students get the same little taste (or big bite) of each subject. You cannot adjust the schedule; especially in public schools, you really can't adjust anything. So your daughter who adores ancient Egypt either never studies it, or studies it for four days in 5th grade. Sadness. Or your son who loves telescopes dearly gets to see one on a video one day in 7th grade, but never again. Frustration.

What if:  a child could have an education that made the most of the things he loves, while still covering all the necessary subjects?  What if his education could be adjusted so that his love of telescopes was used to help him enjoy (or at least tolerate) other less-desirable subjects? How could you use telescopes in math? How could you find them in literature? How often do they crop up in history? Would that help him love school? What if you maximized those telescopes until he discovered he loved insects, or genetics, or music theory, moving from one love to the next?

And that's what homeschooling can do, that the classroom simply can't. One teacher alone can't adjust the educations of 20 kids that way. If her classroom had 5 kids, maybe. That would be closer to a homeschool model. If she had lots of motivation, lots of creativity, knew the 5 kids very well, and were given all the flexibility she needed, a teacher could do it well. Then she would be like ... a mom.

I was a regimented teacher. I look back now at the number of students that I force-fed literature to for 10 years, and I'm a little sad, except I did what their parents required of me. I did my very best. I tried hard to make it interesting, deep, fascinating. I love literature and tried to pass on my enthusiasm. Usually two or three kids in the class were very into it. Usually girls. And usually two or three kids in the class were very not into it. Usually boys. And by the time I got them in high school, there was absolutely nothing I could do to light a flame of magic in a boy who learned to loathe school long ago.  He'd turned his heart to sex, video games, sports, cussing, or maybe just friends or cars. But not school. (The school social scene also totally kills the magic in most boys and many girls, but that's another topic.)

This isn't popular. School systems defend their social scenes vigorously. They defend the homogenous nature of the education vigorously. Cookie-cutter education. I used to loathe the idea of an education formed to suit the individual child, but that's because I was deeply entrenched in the classroom and its ethic; it was hard for me to accept another way. Now I long to nourish the little light of joy in my daughter in the subjects she loves. I want it to grow.

The classroom teacher will always have to choose between presenting magic, and maintaining control over chaos. A teacher that chooses control will get at least that. A teacher that tries to instill magic in 25 kids every day will fail. That only works in the movies with Robin Williams.
 Homeschooling isn't the answer for all families, and it's not the topic of this post. I'm just addressing something we've lost, and lost in an epic way -- the love of learning that should reside in everyone. I've only grazed the surface. Ask yourself: if you hadn't been required to sit in a desk all day for 16 years, what would you have done that you love?

1 comment:

Hello! I hope you leave a word ~ I will get back to it as soon as I can!