Education: The struggles to get it right. Part Two. By David Reid Otey

Before children enter a school building for ”formal” education,  they are already equipped with curiosity, imagination, willingness to learn, energy, excitement, expectation for fun, joy and wonder. Kids already naturally lean towards certain ‘ways’ of taking information in, of categorizing and using the information as a life skill before they enter the class room.  Every child has a talent area where the child’s mind goes frequently and consistently.  It’s that ‘something’ they like to create, to study, to play and experiment with. Music, Art, Cooking, Sports, Building, etc. Kids already have ‘their way’  of looking at ‘their world’, of figuring things out for themselves and choosing what is worth their attention. This is what every person is born with: a natural connection to the world through curiosity of the senses  with a natural purpose of understanding what surrounds them and affects them. So, what is the purpose  of having school at all in the formal public sense?  Two main reasons, I think.

One is to keep the kids off the streets. It cuts down on possible crime rates and gang formations, on any negative that would exist more so with kids on the streets all the time. The second reason is to maintain the community structures and businesses that make every town’s existence possible. Someone will have to take over the businesses and services that make every community run smooth. Those are the two practical reasons for schools.  There has always been school, if you count the teachings kids get at home all the time in helping their parents with caring for the house and the family and sometimes a family business. But in the far, far past, there wasn’t the chance for kids to see or learn much beyond their own front yard or the beyond the limits of their town, city and communities. With a public school they have the chance to know more about what’s in the whole world rather than just a tiny percentage their hometown represents. This extra knowledge gives them more ideas of interest and might help them discover, for the first time, things they are good at doing.

Elementary school is the most likely place for new information to be exciting. Then comes Junior High and Senior High where children start getting beaten over the head with redundancy in English, Language and Math classes. When I did a “block” teaching assignment, which is free assistant labor for a paid public school teacher in their classroom, I was told to teach Algebra. I needed exciting ideas so I approached a math professor at the University I studied at. He took me into a back room full of shelves and books. He pulled out a book and said, “Here are some good math games and mind puzzles for them”. I looked it over and said thank you but handed it back. I left his office wondering why he could not think of a practical use for Algebra. I soon discovered the use in areas of money and sales. And a friend of mine showed me how he used Algebra figuring roof pitch before building a roof and for figuring how many shingles to order.  In a “student teaching” session, which is the same as ”block” only ten weeks longer, I watched a special education teacher use a ’21 spelling rules’ workbook with her students. Really ? There was no creative writing. This was a ‘waste time’ class, as far as I was concerned. As more and more examples of these “more of the same” content situations appeared, I started wondering what else was possible to make our students really capable of getting on with life after school. Even newspapers nation wide would carry articles about schools not preparing students for the real world, claiming a high percentage of graduates could barely read and spell, or do simple math calculations. They needed retraining by the people who hired them. So I have a framework of an idea. Nothing really new but a blend of the old and the new.

Taking the practice of apprenticeship, it goes like this. For grades 6,7,8,9, a student chooses an occupation from a list. This occupation is the area of focus that all math and reading and language and spelling will come through. Every occupation has an extensive vocabulary with many words inter-defined. Every occupation uses math in some capacity. History, Social Studies, Health and Geography can also be taught through an occupational focus. Three weeks before the end of each nine week quarter, the student is given a one week opportunity to put in for an occupation change for the next quarter or to stay in the current one. Think of the experiences and ideas and curiosities that would be aroused, enlivened and excited from exposure to this format. In grades 10, 11, 12, the students would choose two occupations and be made to stay in those occupations for all three years. This would guarantee every student being capable and trained for at least two kinds of jobs. This would also help more students decide on college education and exactly what they’d like to do, thereby reducing needless expense floating around majors and minors and circumvent poor academic counselors.

The list of occupations would cover sciences, law, medicine specifics–nurse and doctor and surgeon topics, music–instruments and writing and singing and performing, theater/acting, cooking, business, construction specifics–carpenter, electrician, plumber, arts, writing/journalism, radio/television, movie industry, semi-driving,  farming/agriculture, operating heavy machinery–bulldozers and such,  wood working/furniture and more, watch repair, sales work, sewing/seamstress, and more. This would obviously take work preparing and setting up for, but that is what ”real” teaching of youth should be in the first place. It would take help from the community at large to make it successful. It would be worth it because it would make education sensible and directly related to the needs of both the children and of the community. It would create more pride in belonging to the world at large. We would see more talent showing up in the world of entrepreneurs. So many benefits to this and great payoffs for the investments required. This, to me, would be ‘getting it right’ in our education system.     The End.

Education–the struggles to get it right. Part One. By David Reid Otey

I teach Special Education for 95% of the finances I earn to eat, have a home, a car, clean clothes, pay bills: all the stuff you have to do, too. And it’s a big deal, really, to think about what ”real” life is. It’s being able to contribute to your own needs and desires first of all. Then life is made up of ”going somewhere” by having and practicing and perfecting skills in something you really want and like to do. That’s a brief synopsis of what education is ”supposed” to be for. Did I hear someone say, “How long have you been a teacher?” I’m glad you asked. Finishing fourteen years at this point. Plenty of time to absorb the challenges, to grow with the right turns and wrong turns of my planning and reacting choices, to eventually enjoy the security and reality of the absurdity of my occupation.

I love what I do. I love the variety of topics and of the kids. I love the electrical energy of curiosity and imagination from the grade school kids flowing all around me, as I walk up and down the halls. Their humor, their bravery, their “I own this world” disposition. The clock starts as soon as they show up for the free breakfast, forty-five minutes before the first class begins. I start then, too, because my morning duty is to help toss out leftovers when they bring up their trays. Rows of kids chatter, laugh, tease, maybe one will yell, but they all mingle. They all socialize, blend, slowly developing the future community. Out there dressed in many different ways, wearing various hair styles and walking proud, or meek, or somewhere in between, are the next business leaders, bankers, police force, medical personnel, social service people, art people, music people, everything under the sun. Maybe even one of the future Presidents of the United States is sitting there. I watch all of this, and I’m always thinking and imagining what their ”reality” will be. I wonder how well our system ”prepares” them for what they want to do rather than what everyone else wants them to do.

 You can read hundreds and hundreds of articles and newspaper reports about failing schools, angry parents, ”distant” politicians trying to “fix” schools in districts they don’t dare drive their cars into, school consolidations spreading like wild fires just to keep some form of education present for their youth, and especially about kids graduating high school with little to no sense about how to handle money, how to have a successful work ethic and attitude, or how to handle physical passion and personal relationships. The really crazy thing is that these reports come from every single generation in the United States, starting in the late 1800’s to the present.

A lot of money has been made for over a century now from ”utopian” curriculums, new ”paradigms” and many so called new ”cures” that promised to finally lead our youths and the nation to higher educational performance so that we can compete with the ”brains” of other countries. Well, guess what. Every new program isn’t really ‘new’. It’s always a redesigned format of something past generations have all seen before. The pretty packaging and the statements of ”scientifically proven and tested” for the new and improved curriculums and state standards are business as usual. Sometimes there are better ideas such as combining past programs that compliment and supplement each other, or that join the right and left hemispheres of the brain. But none of them touch the foundation of where all education begins. None of these programs can start where the spark of curiosity begins; in the homes of the children from the very first day they enter the house of the family they were born into. That is where it all begins.  

What I share next is to show the variety of emotional states of the students every school has and tries to teach. When I stand in front of my class and pass other classes during a walk down the hall, here is what I see. Kids that are loved by their families, kids that are tolerated by their families, kids that are almost hated by their families, and some kids with temporary families because their kin are dead or in jail, or simply ran away from the responsibility. I see kids who know more about drugs than some of the teachers, who know what pornography is and have seen it, who are used to having the police visit members of their families regularly and who know how get around town on their own late at night because no one at home cares where they are. I also see kids from families that are very poor but doing their best to work and make things balance out.  Single moms and single dads, working when they must, depending upon family to baby sit their kids. Then there are the poor families who have adults that don’t want to work and who have learned how to use the system. They’re not stupid, just lazy and living the way they want to. We also have the kids from homes where the parents care, work hard, know how to handle money, watch over their kids day and night, making sure they’re home by dark. There are more varied conditions and combinations of conditions. All of these conditions are what children live in and experience before they ever step into a school. I have learned that stereotypes fit reality maybe 60% simply by my observations. I have also learned that there are kids who want to learn, who have pride in themselves, who love to know things outside of their ‘home’ world and will work hard because they love what life offers—these kids come from every single condition I have listed. It was a curve ball surprise to me when I first noticed a ‘well-off’ kid manipulating, whining and throwing fits to get out of school work and try to get kicked out, and then see a poor kid in old clothes loving the school work and doing everything asked by the teacher, smiling, asking questions, really enjoying the process. It took awhile to see that attitude trumps everything else. The best books, the best programs, the best of anything is effective only if it is in the hands of a person with the right attitude.  End of Part One.