Once your children are raised, you look back with different emotions on a thousand little vignettes. Some of them are memories of teacher conferences. A teacher dissatisfied with one of our kids’ performance, trying to tell us… what, exactly? That he should write in cursive? That he should “show his work” on a page of forty identical problems? That his sense of humor was disturbing to individuals (usually the assistant principal) who take everything literally?
Let’s take that cursive example. One of my kids’ fine-motor coordination lagged behind his age. His third-grade teacher solemnly explained that “if it doesn’t learn to write cursive, he may have trouble getting a job in the future.”
Really. I have witnesses.
I was so stunned that I could hardly answer. MrsDoF may have dragged me away before I said anything really regrettable.
Science education was – how to put this gently – pretty weak at our kids’ school. There was the teacher who informed the class that the reason it was warmer in Summer is that the Earth is closer to the sun. There was the textbook that, in the glossary section, defined “extinction” as “when an animal is dead”. Or the teacher who downgraded one of my kids’ science projects because “the Van Allen belts didn’t have anything to do with space”. The one who ridiculed one of my kids for not being creative enough to write about a triangular planet. (Unlike his teacher, my son was well aware that planets can really only be more or less spherical.) The one who just couldn’t believe that the child had read a book by Arthur C. Clarke called “Dolphin Island”. (No, that’s not right; are you sure it wasn’t “Island Of The Blue Dolphins”?) And don’t even get me started on the solar eclipse incident.
Anyway, they were our kids, and it was our kids’ school, so we did volunteer work there. I taught a “great books” writing program for kids. We tutored kids having trouble with their reading and math. We monitored detention. And that’s how I got in trouble.
It was a sunny day, and I had a half-dozen boys in the room. All their classmates were outside at recess. They were supposed to sit quietly and… I don’t know, think about the awful thing that they’d done, I guess? Fidgeting in class or something.
I have no more tolerance for inactivity than kids do. We struck up a conversation. One of the kids was excited by his science class. He mentioned Galileo. And by chance I had a brass plumb bob in my jacket pocket. (The very same bob, at right.)
All right, here we go. I climbed up on a stool and tied the bob onto the frame of the projector screen. It hung down toward the floor, swaying gently.
Everybody have watches? They all had watches; most were stopwatches. OK, everyone time how long it takes to do 20 swings. They all gave a figure, and we averaged it on the board.
I pulled the string way out from the vertical, so it would swing a much longer arc. Any bets? A couple kids said it would take less time to complete 20 swings, a couple said more time, one said the same time, and one wasn’t sure. I released the bob and they timed. We averaged.
Same time! A little swing close to the floor and a long, wild swing took the same time! Lots of animated discussion on why this must be so.
OK, more bets. Suppose I shorten the string? Longer time, or shorter time? The same time? The kids were shouting out their guesses, and the reasons for them. I let the bob go. They timed, we averaged.
Shorter time! And one more time we tried the long swing. All six guessed it would be the same as the short swing for the short string. Right!
Detention time was over; I let them go and they swarmed out the door. I erased the board, untied the bob and stuck it in my jacket pocket. The principal saw the kids leave, and shot a puzzled look in my direction.
I found out later that one of the kids had later jumped up in science hour, run to the blackboard and explained the whole thing to the rest of the class. The teacher was shocked; that child was usually quiet in class.
Next week the Mrs and I were walking through the halls, carrying our helmets. One of our more familiar kids saw us.
“Are you doing detention today? Oh, man, I shoulda done somethin’ bad!”
Later that month we were informed that they wouldn’t need us to volunteer for detention anymore.
It seemed to me that neither the administrators or the teachers had any enthusiasm about the sciences. At the risk of stepping into political territory (like that ever stopped me before) they were more concerned with self-esteem than chemistry, electricity, physics, or biology. And math took place in one concrete silo, never to bump into science in the other silo, which never seemed to make contact with history in the third silo, and so on.
Are our classrooms demoralized? Have we lost the ability to visualize kids engaged with learning? I don’t know what it all means, and it was a long time ago. Maybe everything is all better now – please share in the comments.
This post is really a two-parter. In the next Carnival, a short story about an imaginary classroom. Not a proposal or a prescription, but for what it’s worth, the classroom I keep dreaming about in my waking hours.