I am currently reading Jonathan Kozol’s book Letters to a Young Teacher. In this book, Kozol is writing letters to Francesca, a young teacher who is facing the many academic and emotional challenges of the first year of teaching. His letters are a fascinating insight into his thoughts and opinions about a wide variety of topics facing education today – politics, testing, racial separation, and more. He made a great analogy in a section I was reading yesterday, and it really resonated with me. Kozol said that the testing movement is kind of like a 16-city European tour. So true… so true…
Think about it…
What are teachers asked to do? We have a scripted agenda that requires that every student see thirteen cities (or grade levels) in 13 years. As we pass through each city, we point things out to students that are on the list of approved sites. It’s “drive by learning” at its fullest.
Have you ever been on one of those tours? You sit in a bus all day long. They let you out for a little lunch (in a designated location) and some recess (maybe a guided museum tour or some shopping). You see it all, and you experience nothing. If you stray off the prescribed path to follow a sound or smell that interests you, you are chided by the tour guide. Heaven forbid you return to the bus a minute later than the agenda states because “we just won’t make it to our next stop on time.” When you get home from one of these trips, what emotional and sensory connections have you made? Have you created authentic memories of your experience or have you simply created a slideshow of stagnant photo clips?
I don’t know about you, but…
The year(s) that I get to have students on my bus tour of a new grade and curriculum will not be a time to strap on their seat belts and watch out the window. I don’t want students’ time with me to be merely a checklist of sites to see. I want them to get off the bus, wander down a side street, stop and have a local dish, and chat with the natives. I don’t want memories to simply be a photo. They should include a sensory immersion into curriculum and culture, one that is rich in authentic and self-constructed meaning. I don’t even mind if we get lost once in a while, for it is in those un-scripted moments that we learn the most about the place in which we are immersed (and have the most fun). In each year of schooling, just as in foreign travel, there are things to see, people to meet, and new languages to learn. This cannot be achieved from the inside of a bus.
So where do you teach? Are you a 13 city tour guide, or do you throw the itinerary out the window?
Photo credits: Paris Cafe (ferminet) and double decker bus (wallyg)
I guess I wasn’t quite finished… a bit of a follow-up to this post. Your many questions and comments here and on Twitter have kept my mind reeling about this post all day long. Let me expand.
Many people ask me, “How can you throw the itinerary out the window? There are standards. There are tests. I need to keep my job.” Trust me. I need my job too, but I can’t serve my conscious and teach in a way that could be recorded and played back day by day. I am still thinking in terms of my previous travel analogy (thank you Jonathan Kozol for getting me thinking this way!).
I guess asking if you throw the entire agenda out the window wasn’t quite what I was thinking. I want you to visit the same cities, but make these visits in an entirely different way than as if you were a tape recorder on a bus who times out what to say and when to say it based on a rote and planned schedule. Tour guides sit in the front seat, rarely turning around to see who is watching, taking notes or even sleeping. They read off a script that doesn’t take into account the previous experiences or interests of the people on their tour. For all practical purposes, there could be a pre-recorded version of the tour that gets played over and over. The tour itself drives by the fronts of the buildings and monuments. Tourists see the front walls of the Louvre without ever experiencing the art that lies inside, other than possibly the pictures in the brochure they are given. How many of us teach that way? If the kids don’t understand, we drive by again and again – wondering why the students don’t get it any better or don’t show more interest. It’s amazing that more students aren’t experiencing motion sickness from the drive-by teaching!
Instead, go to France. Visit the Louvre, but get off the bus! Touch the glass of I.M. Pei’s glass entrance. Discuss the juxtaposition of the modern architecture and the classical. Go inside the Louvre and soak in the enormity of The Coronation of Napoleon as emporer. Stand in front of the Mona Lisa, without speaking, and try to figure out who makes her smile in such a way. Sit at the cafe in the courtyard and munch on a croque-monsiuer and sip a glass of Orangina. People watch. Figure out where to buy your souvenirs to get the best deal. Wander down a side street and discover sidwalk artists and musicians who live to tell their stories of French culture and beauty. In the classroom, visit the same places (or objectives) but experience them.
When you return home from this trip and attempt to pass through customs (or that end of year standardized test), which student do you think will remember more? The one who sat on a bus for the whole year passing by the same monuments month after month? Or the student who got off the bus and experienced the trip first hand? It doesn’t have to be a question of rebelling against the system completely and going to Timbuktu instead of Paris – just get off the bus!