Thursday, October 4, 2012

Teaching My Own: Evaluating My School Days

First grade, third grade, fourth grade.
Fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade.
Eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade.

Oh my goodness. School dayzzzz.

Before John Holt entered my life, I considered myself without question to be a successful product of the public school system.

For the first six years of my school career, I was happy to be a good little girl. I did whatever my teachers asked of me - filled out every workbook, followed every rule, and kept my desk neat and orderly to boot. Every teacher liked me, and I earned top marks. In second grade, my teacher wrote in the comments section of my report card, "A joy in the classroom." She was right; I was an angel.

In middle school and high school, I tried to come across as a bit less brainy and obedient. Deep down inside, of course, I still wanted all As, and the idea of getting in trouble still horrified me. But I didn't want the other kids to know that, and I spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to figure out how to walk the line between smart and good, but not too smart and good. I ended up graduating 12th in my class, and I recall breathing a huge sigh of relief that I was not in the top ten. That would have been too dorky.

See? I had a nice, normal American education, and it was proving to be a solid foundation for college, career, and the rest of my life. What could be better than that?

* * * * *

But as I read deeper into my stack of books, and considered a more honest assessment of my childhood education, I had to admit to some troubling trends.

My strongest recollection of school is being bored. I was more than happy to learn about whatever my teachers decided to teach me, but the pace was so mind-numbingly slow that I spent a lot of time daydreaming out the window and watching the clock tick. I usually finished my assignments quickly, and was left with a lot of free time at my desk while the others plodded on. In high school, I often got put into groups with the slower kids, I suppose in the hopes that I would help them learn something. Usually, I ended up doing the work myself while they sat around and talked.

I also remember being frightened a lot. No doubt, part of that fearfulness was a product of my pleaser personality and my natural desire to be good. But as a youngster, I took the rigors of classroom life very much to heart.
I was afraid of breaking the rules.
I was afraid of being scolded.
I was afraid of giving the wrong answer.
I was afraid of being too loud.
I was afraid of disappointing my teachers.
I was afraid of getting less than perfect grades.
Over the years, as I gained confidence in those areas, my fears shifted to the social arena.
I was afraid of being too smart,
I was afraid of not having friends and boyfriends,
I was afraid of peer pressures around alcohol, drugs and sex.
And I was still worrying about grades.

I read somewhere that a typical elementary school student receives individual attention from her teacher for just 5-10 minutes per week. Honestly, I doubt that I ever received that much time in an entire year. Other than a cursory remark when handing back an assignment, I can't remember my teachers ever talking directly to me. When I think back to my high school teachers, I can't recall even one who took a special interest in me, or encouraged me in any particular line of study.

As I've said, I was considered a good student, and I always earned good grades. But I can't really say that I remember learning all that much, and I certainly don't recall being interested in what I was learning. There are a few memories that stand out sharp and clear: in fourth grade, I remember a textbook photograph of native Pacific Islander children on an island in the South Pacific that absolutely fascinated me; I loved my high school music and art humanities class; and my first algebra teacher entertained me with his clever and interesting ways of explaining things. But as I thought back to the times when I had felt most alive and excited as a learner, I was shocked to realize that my best experiences all took place not in the classroom, but outside the realm of school.

* * * * *

Hmm. My history as a bored, approval-seeking, fear-driven, good-girl student who was overlooked by teachers and embarrassed by her own intelligence certainly squared with the findings of Holt and the others in his field. I was shocked to see how clearly my life as a student had been more about playing a game than actually learning.

This last revelation triggered a new question: if formal schooling was not the force that had awakened my desires to learn, then what was?

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