"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Friday, August 17, 2012

Back to School

Walk through any discount department store today and it's clear that it's "that time of year" again...time to buy school supplies.

I remember as a kid being excited each year when it was time to get new school supplies. I wasn't a great student, but each year was an opportunity to start over...a chance to do better. For me it was like baseball...no matter how much trouble a team had one year, the next year, when the season starts, everyone has an equal chance to become the champion. Every year is a fresh start.

There are some things I miss about teaching...

I miss the beginning of the school year.

What? It's monumentally stressful -- getting the room set up, counting out books, sorting out name tags/desk charts, making a schedule, going to meetings, talking to last year's teachers, the late nights/early mornings of seemingly endless preparation and paperwork -- the 12-14 hour days.

True...I don't miss all that, but I do miss the excitement of meeting new children. I miss the delightful experience of learning about young humans and their fresh minds, sharing new ideas and getting to know new senses of humor and interests. I miss watching them come into the building for the first time in the new year...the confused, and excited grins on their faces as they search for their classroom and their new teacher. I even miss the ones who come in terrified and lost...I miss how that fear changes to pleasure as they see the familiar face of a friend from the previous year, or to relief as they finally find their classroom and seat...their own personal space, safe and clean.

The newness of each school year is one of those thousands of little things which makes teaching so much fun and such a great adventure. Every year is a new beginning...a chance to start over...a chance to do better. Every year is a fresh start...for teachers as well as students.

In 1951 Isaac Asimov wrote a short story titled The Fun They Had*. It's the story of a young boy who finds a book...
The Fun They Had

The story takes place in the year 2157, where teaching is performed by computer-like robots with vast information stores. The protagonists of this story are two children, Tommy and Margie. Tom, the older child, finds a real book in his attic. He is very surprised by the object because the words on the page do not move like the words on the screen of their mechanical teacher.

The book describes the school from centuries earlier, where there was a real man as teacher that gave homework and asked questions to his students, and all the boys and girls went into a special building. Margie is very curious but her mother calls her because it is time for school. School for Tom and Margie takes place at home in a room where they do homework and hand it in via a proper slot in a mechanical teacher.
The teacher in Asimov's story was mechanical -- a precursor of today's online schools. Margie thought that it would be so much more fun to attend a school like in the old days...with real people, a human teacher and other children.

Walt Gardner, while scolding teachers unions for alienating their most logical supporters, wrote,
...public schools are at an historic crossroads. Whether they will even exist decades from now is uncertain. If they somehow manage to survive, however, I don't think they'll be recognizable.
Perhaps not...it's obvious that the public school system of the US is in flux...charters, vouchers, online schools...who knows what things will look like when Margie and Tommy find a real book about todays schools 145 years in the future.

But if they are so different that there's no interaction among children, if real live human teachers are distant or non-existent, then something more than simple buildings will have been lost. A school is more than just the building, the books, the pencils, and the iPads.

A school is a place where children and adults begin fresh each year to explore the world together. It's a place where one generation literally sits at the feet of their elders to be introduced to our cultures, our knowledge and our shared experiences. It's a place where wonder grows in a community of learners.

One cannot get that experience sitting in front of a computer at a virtual school.

Today I miss the beginning of the school year because I'm not there to enjoy it. I dread the possibility of a time when I might miss it because it no longer exists.



* According to Wikipedia, The Fun They Had was written as a personal favor for a friend, and became more popular than Asimov ever expected. It is the most anthologized of all his stories and has appeared in many publications outside of the science fiction genre. I first read it when I found it included in a basal reader from which I taught during my first full year as an elementary teacher.
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Stop the Testing Insanity!


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