Monday, June 20, 2011

School Confusion: Response To an Anonymous Comment

I received a very detailed comment on my Ten Ways For Schools To Confuse a Child post, so I thought I would address each of the Anonymous Commenter's points.

Let's look into this a bit further...

Here, I will include the original list item, followed by the comment in italics, and then my response. Here goes...

1. Punish him for something that is completely beyond his control, like being late for school because of traffic or because his mother overslept.
Anonymous Commenter Says: the entire adult world is geared around being on time. I cant give excuses for being late at work, why should school be different? Surely an occassional instance of getting stuck in traffic is not going to scar a kid who shows up late, but isnt part of the point of school to prepare kids for the real world?
My Response: I'm assuming most adults are not driven to work by their mothers. If an adult is late for work, he can take responsibility for it. He can take measures to make sure it does not happen again. Children don't have much of a choice as to when they arrive at school. Regularly punishing kids for parents being late must be confusing for a child.

2. Make a really big deal about how important it is for kids to get physical activity, and then force him to sit still for 95% of the school day. *extra credit for giving excessive homework, leading to more forced sitting: 1 point for each hour
physical activity is for before and after school and at recess and, hopefully, P.E. That should be enough. It is also important to learn how to sit the hell down so that you dont grow up to be a spaz who cant hold down a job.
My Response: I don't know how much activity "should be enough" for every kid out there. I would imagine it's different for everyone. For your information: there are lots of jobs for which sitting the hell down is not ideal. Who is "preparing" the kids for those jobs?

3. Tell him how important it is to present original work, and then take away points on his math test when he gets the answers his own way. 
isnt the point to teach the process?? A kid can stumble on some weird way of getting an "Answer" but if they dont know the process won't they will be lost in higher grades when they build on that process?? Your not going to find an Alternate Way of doing trigonometry!
My Response: I have taken a lot of math classes in my life. I can tell you that almost any problem in high school trigonometry can be solved in many different ways. The process can look different for some kids, and it does not imply he has "stumbled on some weird way." His way is not wrong just because it's not the teacher's way. All of the greatest mathematicians in history were so brilliant because they figured out new ways to look at problems.

4. Brush off his complaints about being bullied, telling him he has to toughen up, and then punish him for retaliating against the bully.
Bullies are everywhere. You cant hide from them and if you dont learn how to deal, how will you handle an overbearing coworker or boss or random bully who is posting to your blog?
My Response: I have not been bullied since I was in school. Period. I don't have to hide from bullies, but I would avoid one if he or she crossed my path. We don't learn anything by putting up with bullies, except that being bullied is a part of life. You apparently learned that lesson well. But it does not have to be. No one should have to put up with bullying. We can take care of ourselves by removing ourselves from these situations. In fact, kids in school are the only group of people who are encouraged to "learn how to deal" with bullies, rather than get the hell away from them.

5. Call something "an opportunity," and then make it mandatory. *extra credit if you recently made him learn the definition of the word opportunity: 5 points
Mandatory Opportunity is simply not an oxymoron. Its not.
My Response: "Oxymoron" is not a word I used. I simply said the combination was confusing. Opportunity seems to me to imply "chance" or "possibility," neither of which has anything to do with "inevitability" as "mandatory" suggests. A better word would be "obligation."

6. Ask lots of questions to which you already know the answers.
its a pretty sad teacher who doesnt know more than the student-- sad student too for that matter. Unless you are talking metaphysics, someone in the room better know the friggin answer or tell me who the heck is learning anything in that room!
My Response: When in the rest of your life do you have people asking questions to which they already know the answers? No one ever does this to me. Either let the kids in schools ask the questions, or let teachers and students discuss real problems that don't already have answers.

7. Tell him how important it is to develop healthy eating habits, then make him ignore his hunger for most of the day, only allowing him to eat at designated times, and then serve up some horrible food in the cafeteria. *extra credit for making a rule against bringing any food from home: 20 points
eating whenever you feel like it is not a healthy eating habit, disruptive, unfair to other students, and sort of gross. Gross school lunches are however a good point. Make sure your kid eats healthy for all other meals and pack him an apple or something.
My Response: There is a lot of room between "eating at lunchtime for 20 minutes" and "eating whenever you feel like it." Even offering students a few chances to eat during the day would be an improvement. Although, as an adult, I do eat whenever I feel like it. What could be a healthier way to eat? Eat when you are hungry. Don't eat when you're not. Do you still eat by the clock? And your solution to the problem of the school lunches being gross is to "make sure your kid eats healthy for the other meals," really? That's assuming every kid has access to healthy food outside school, which is just not the case. How about we try to make better options available in schools?

8. Give him a long-term assignment with very specific requirements that take a whole page to explain, and write at the bottom "Have FUN with this!"
i dont understand this one even enough to make a comment. You dont give complicted assignments that require a lot of explanation? Why the heck not? Why shouldnt they have fun with a hard assignment?
My Response: I never once had "fun" with a long school assignment. And I think it's insulting to include "having fun" as part of the assignment. If it were actually fun, the teacher wouldn't have to say that.

9. Tell him how important it is for him to get eight hours of sleep every night, and then make it impossible for him to do so. *extra credit for starting school super early: 1 point for every minute before 8 AM
what? how is the school forcing him/her to get less that 8 hours of sleep? Dont tell me a grade schooler has six hours of homework.
My Response: Kids have other needs. As you pointed out above, a kid has to fit in getting his physical activity after school. And eating his healthy meals to balance out the gross one he had at school. And having fun with his long-term assignments. Never mind having any down time.

10. Talk about how one purpose of school is to teach critical thinking, but then absolutely don't pay any attention to his criticisms of anything about school.
"Critical" thinking is not the same meaning as being "critical" of your teachers. Different meaning of the word. I learned that in school.
My Response: I am aware of the difference in usage. I feel that any student who thinks "critically" about school is going to come up with a lot of "criticism" of the policies and practices. I believe kids would have great ideas about how to fix all of these problems, if they weren't kept so busy answering questions people already know the answers to. We should ask the kids what to do about these confusing problems, and listen to what they have to say. They are the ones who have to live with the solutions.


  1. Joseph Chilton Pearce once said in an interview with Radio Free School;
    "I've heard of people who will not send their children to Waldorf or Montessori school because they're child is happy there. And they'll say, “Look. It's a jungle out there. We've got to toughen them up ready to meet that jungle.” And I say, that's the equivalent of saying that it's a mad world out there and you must drive your child mad in order to live in it. I say the strongest, greatest thing you can do for your child to deal with the mad world is to be absolutely whole and sane."

    Good responses!

  2. I love your response to Q9!
    Great comeback, it will be interesting to see if this gets any other long, anonymous comments.

  3. Love your responses and the comment from rfs. Thank you! :)

  4. Love it and SPOT ON!!!!

    To RFS - fab, I am so sick of hearing at "playgloop" that various Mums are sending kids to different school to split them up from their friends so they work better. Really? A four year old deliberately made to be alone and friendless in a new environment where confidence is absolutely needed to avoid being the butt of every bully? And Jeez - at four they aren't doing rocket science.

  5. This is so so true. I agree with all of it. Especially sitting all day. I was so so bored in school I rarely paid attention.

    The 8th one reminded me of all the long long papers I had to do in grad school for all my classes. I really doubt the teachers read them too. I was so tempted to BS the middle and insert random sentences about a really slow snail that used all S's at the start of the words. Only, I was afraid that if they did read my paper I would flunk and those papers were a huge part of my grade.

  6. Incredible post!! I'm bookmarking this for sure.

  7. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! LOVE your responses!WAY to GO!

  8. At first I was thinking, Ugg.... I wouldn't have responded to this person at all. Then I read your post....You have some great responses and made some great points that no doubt will be helpful to some folks as they move through their journeys...

    Thing is, when you give energy to what you don't want you attract more of what you don't want...and you give "crazy" credence. I wouldn't be surprised if "Anonymous" continues to go round and round with you on these points. I have seen it before - especially in such forums as "groups" and "blogs" where people feel they can BE Anonymous as they behave poorly. I learned long ago that I am just not that interested in debating with people who are just interested in sucking up all my energy and are clearly NOT interested in the least about what I have to say or how I live.

    I have arrived at a juncture where I am fine with the naysayers....I figure that this world will sort itself out one way or another for better or for worse. It is not my job to convince anyone of anything. The BEST thing I can do for positivity and progress is to focus my energy on living my life in accordance with my ideals, staying positive and NOT falling into the great energy suck that is justifying myself or my beliefs to ANYONE.

    You have great energy and light! You don't owe anyone any explanations. Anonymous IS a bully...the kind you want to avoid in life. The most cowardly Anonymous one. We know what we feel is sane and there is no point arguing with insanity. I think that what is great about this Anonymous respondent is that they are a prime example of someone who has utterly subscribed to the whole system that is "dumbing us down." Way to provide contrast!

    Keep up the awesome posts! Love them.

  9. Number 9 is the best, definitely. They are all very clever, though! I would never have thought of any of those replies.

  10. Well, she elicited another Anonymous post (above) and another long one (keep reading), but it looks like no more long and Anonymous posts so far...

    To get to my reply: My objective here is to provide counterpoint, not to "bully." I believe the basis behind each of your points from the original post are sound. I'm going to have a go at shedding a bit of a different light on each of them and your responses to anonymous in an attempt to present a more put-together and civil response.

    1) I would agree that punishing a child for matters beyond their control is ludicrous, however, when rules are established (in this case, punctuality) the consequences for breaking these rules must be consistent or at least have the perception of being consistent. If the punishment for tardiness is something like clapping erasers for 5 minutes or helping the teacher get the materials for the next lesson from storage or even a simple verbal reprimand, then the message is sent and it is consistent without being overboard regardless of who should be assigned the root of the blame.

    Additionally, if a kid goes home and tells his parents that their tardiness is causing them to receive punishment, then this could (and should) make these parents realize that their child's punctuality is a matter to be taken seriously. Is it "fair?" Well, no. But is it at least a viable solution to the problem at hand? I would say, yes. Additionally, if this turns into a recurring problem with the parent, then the parent should be contacted directly (obviously).

    The converse of this is not punishing the child whose parents made them late. For each child that was late, the teacher would have to take the time (potentially away from teaching the class as a whole) to investigate the cause. Then he/she would have to assign the proper consequence based on "whose fault" it is and explain the basis for this to the rest of the class. To simply not punish them with no explanation has a very high potential for giving the impression of favoritism or "unfairness."

    I'm not saying that extenuating circumstances should never be taken into account. I'm simply saying that while punishing a child for his parents' misdeed has the obvious potential to confuse that child, not punishing that child for breaking a rule has the equal potential to confuse all the rest of the kids.

    2) I would argue that emphasizing the need for physical activity is a necessity *because* of the tendency of school to involve a large amount of sitting. The nature of society in our time lends itself very storngly to a largely sedentary lifestyle. I would say that encouraging physical activity and emphasizing its importance goes a long way toward teaching kids that their free time should not all be taken up sitting in front of a rectangle with little colored lights. I would also say that this perceived contradiction goes more toward establishing a need for balance. I never heard a teahcer emphasize physical activity by saying "You should be active all the time," nor have I ever heard one emphasize schoolwork and/or class time by saying "You should sit down at a desk all the time." It's about knowing what your body needs and knowing how to fit the necessary physical activity into your life.

    Also, while there are planty of jobs where sitting the hell down is very much an undesirable trait, there are very few where a lack of self-control is in any way a desirable trait. Teaching kids the importance of sitting still goes toward teaching them the importance of self-control. Human beings in our society simply cannot act on every whim, impulse or instinct that crosses their nervous system. To answer your question: Teaching kids to sit still is preparing them for a number of jobs, both physical and cerebral.

  11. 3)

    Just because you get the right answer your own way doesn't mean you got it the right way, or even *a* right way. Having kids show their work makes them demonstrate that they have at least used sound mathematics (if we're talking about math) to derive their answers. I would agree that if a child is not penalized for solving his problems or equations "the teacher's way," then the teacher is in fact stifling their mathematical creativity and should be given a stern talking-to at the very least.

    I did read your blog post which describes your position in more detail and the circumstance therein. I can directly identify with your student's plight, as I did the same thing in math classes all the way up through algebra 2 and trig. (I did actually have to "pencil up" in calculus and beyond, though.) Fortuantely, I was able to prove to my teachers one-on-one that I was actually getting the answers to whatever problem they could throw at me entirely in my head and error-free. My math teachers were good teachers, and I would encourage you and your student to give his teacher(s) another chance to be good teachers too.

    4) I prepared a lengthy reply to your post on bullying as well, but i was thwarted by my iPhone and its unwillingness to post replies on Blogspot. (I might rewrite & repost it ... someday.) I'll sum up: Running away from a bully gives him (or her ... but I'll use the masculine from here on out) the impression that he has won. Standing up to him - either directly or by taking the appropriate action with the approproate authority - shows him that you are not to be trifled with and that what he is doing is wrong. "Toughening up" and taking the abuse silently or ceasing your pursuit of justice when one person or any number of people tell you to just "toughen up" and take it is absolutely the worst thing a kid could do. In my opinion, running away is a close second.

    5) To present my point, I'm going to use the words "mandatory" and "opportunity" in a sentence describing a book report about one of my favorite books - Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea." Apparently, I'm feeling all "schooly." "This assignment is mandatory, and I would like you to use it as an opportunity to explore the possible symbolism in Hemingway's novel." Every student has to complete the assignment. Simply doing a book report does not necessarily mean that the person reporting must explore the inherent symbolism of the work. The teacher here is encouraging his students to look more deeply into the text and describe what they see underneath. He's giving them a "chance" to do something that they might not have done with earlier assignments or with the novel itself if they have already read it.

    To present it differently: If I am offered a job interview, and my wife tells me I have to go to it, the "possibility" exists that I could either get the job or embarass myself. I have the opportunity to do either of these things, but since my wife told me I have to go, you better believe it's mandatory.

  12. 6) I'll give my counterpoint here directly to your statement "No one ever does this to me." Do you have a driver's license? Have you ever received a certification for anything? Have you ever been part of a quality assurance audit? When it comes to verification of knowledge, the most direct way of performing the verification is to ask questions to which you already know the answers. Asking someone questions to which you do not know the answers would be a very unreliable means of performing said verification. ("When approaching a yellow traffic light, what action should the driver take?" "Do the Hokey-Pokey." "Sounds legit to me.")

    I agree that encouraging students to ask questions and engaging them in meaningful discussions are very effective and broadening means of education. There are plenty of situations where they are highly undesirable for the purpose of knowledge verification. How exactly would a meaningful discussion about multiplication with a group of second-graders go beyond explanation of the concept itself? And at what point would the teacher be expected to not know about it in order for the discussion to be a truly free exchange of ideas?

    Asking questions to which you already know the answers is not the end-all be-all of teaching methods, to be sure. Completely abolishing this practice from a teaching plan would seem to me to be both ludicrous and super-duper crazy difficult.

    7) To be honest, I don't disagree with this enough to refute it. I don't agree with eating whenever you feel like it on the basis of self-control (much like sitting still), but obviously it works for you and your family. I honestly wish my wife and I could do something like your platters on a regular basis, mostly for lunch.

    8) I usually enterpret "Have fun with this" as "be creative with it" or "try to think outside the box." A task can have very specific criteria associated with it and still require creativity. I design control rooms for nuclear power plants for a living. The nuclear industry is very highly regulated. Every design challenge that my team and I face is met with creativity and we tend to have a lot of fun with it. You have my sympathies for never having had a fun long term assignment. I had lots of fun with lots of my assignments through high school and college. The kids in my class(es) had lots of fun too.

    9) I don't disagree with this as you state it. I do take it to mean, however, that the assignment of homework makes it impossible for kids to get 8 hours of sleep if they are to be expected to do everything else they need to do as well. The only kids I knew in school whose lives were consumed by homework were the ones who did so by choice - the overachievers gunning for extra credit or the kids who signed up for every advanced and AP class they possibly could. Maybe school has changed since I went through. I guess I'll have to wait & see.

    10) To which confusing problems are you referring? And at what level should we solicit answers from children about them? To what degree do we explain problems with (to use my own example) school budget cuts to a 6 year old? If we don't explain the situation fully and/or the 6 year old doesn't comprehend it fully, to what degree should we trust his solution?

    Also, there's a difference between accepting every critical thought a child has regarding school reform regardless of when and where it's posited and having an established method of allowing children to communicate suggestions. I'd say it's perfectly ok to disregard the verbal expression of critical thinking given by a 4th grader in the middle of a math test, or at the very least inform him that it is not the time for such conversation.

    I've been reading your blog for a while now, and I do enjoy it. Keep up the good work.

  13. @Dave O, Thank you very much for continuing the discussion. I look forward to responding to these as well! For the record, I don't think you were being a bully, although the way you started your last anonymous comment was a bit off-putting. Anyway, I appreciate your willingness to share. And especially your civil continuation of the conversation. Definitely expect more on this from me, just not sure exactly when I will get to it!

  14. Thanks for writing such an awesome post! I just stumbled across your blog, and I'm definitely going to be sticking around : )

  15. @Vickie Anonymous isn't me. I always own up to my bullying :)

  16. Also - Holy typos in my post. Well .. it was late. I'll flog myself later.

  17. Thanks everyone for the comments!

    @DaveO, Oops! Sorry about my mix-up. I see I missed something important from your intro! I hope to turn my responses to your post into a new post, to continue the discussion.

  18. I am a public school teacher and while I understand where you're coming from, not all of us are the "antithesis" of what you are looking for in your children's upbringing. We're clearly not there for the money, and most of us are there because we really are passionate about helping children learn about their world. I understand your frustration with the way the school day operates, the expectations, the standards, the meals, etc etc. But, child-directed learning may not 100% work all the time. There are not that many options in which one learns to read. You can use a phonics-based system or a whole word one but there aren't multiple ways to read and decode when it comes down to it. Our language has specific sounds, phonemes, syllables, emphasized in certain fashions. This all has to be learned to be a functioning adult. I'm using learning to read as a specific example in this response. One may disagree about the appropriate "age" a child should learn to read, but the point is that not every parent who wants to homeschool or unschool or homelearn, whatever you want to call it is equipped with the tools and background knowledge to do so. And FYI-we don't want them to be tardy because they will miss out on important learning. We don't penalize them for being late if the parents can't get themselves out of bed to bring their child to school. Clearly we know the kind of parenting going on. I fully support Jamie Oliver's public school food revolution, it's past time for food to change. But never suggest we are not looking out for the children-we are there because we love each one of them. I totally understand where you are coming from, but give us credit too. We are working our tushies off for those kids-even if it's not your personal style, our kids are flourishing under our love and personal care of being in their lives and helping them grow academically.

  19. @Anonymous, I know there are lots of good teachers out there, and I know that those are not the people to blame for the horrible condition of the system right now. I know teachers' hands are tied by lots of regulations and requirements. The purpose of the original post was just to highlight some of the contradictions kids face in school. I certainly don't mean to say that "all teachers" are bad or don't love children or deserve no credit. I suggest you check out a post I wrote a few months ago:

    Thank you for your comment.

  20. I have a response to DaveO, and one for the anonymous teacher. Both, this time, have to do with my daughter, Annalise, who is 7 and would be entering second grade tomorrow, if she were schooled, which she has never been.

    DaveO, you asked:

    How exactly would a meaningful discussion about multiplication with a group of second-graders go beyond explanation of the concept itself?

    I don't knowabout a group, as I wouldn't initiate that talk with a group of 7ishes, because there really would be no point if they weren't ready for and interested in the topic.

    It just so happens, though, that I had a meaningful conversation about multiplication with Annalise at about 2:30 the other morning, when she came inyo our room to tell me that X x Y = Z. She used numbers; I've forgotten them. She was off by a multiple, so I gave her the correction.

    She tried a few more, missing most by just a bit. I offered corrections, and she delved into the 10's, which she has figured out without learning any tables.

    It was easy to see she had the concept, but doesn't quite have the mechanics of the process down yet.

    I didn't start explaining it, either. I just gave her the correct answers she wanted, and told her I could show her how to multiply using the abacus if she wanted. She thought that was interesting, but was ready to move on to cleaning her caterpillar's habitat, and that was that.

    She might want to see that, another time. She might figure it out for herself...more on that in the next comment....or she may get the mechanics down before we get back to the abacus.

    It might happen tomorrow, or next week, or a few months from now, but it's pretty obvious she's on the road to getting it, and will eventually get it, whether we discuss it again or not. She's already grasping it, and doesn't need teaching to complete the journey. And, with no grade or test looming on her horizon, she can make that journey on her own schedule.

    When she DOES complete the trip, she will own that knowing, and having learned it. She won't grow up thinking she needed someone to teach it to her; she will instead know that she figured it out FOR HERSELF.

    And, from watching her brother learn this a few years ago, I can tell you that it will likely make a very large difference in how she approaches life.

    No way I'm going to ask her questions I know the answers too, unless she asks me to (which she does, sometimes, to challenge herself), and risk her getting to that place!

  21. Yo the anonymous teacher - Your post seems to assume that children need an adult around to teach them to read.

    Annalise is learning to read. She has never had a reading lesson. She enjoys being read to, lives in a family where everyone else reads for both information and pleasure, she loves watching Jewelry TV and PBS Kids shows like Word World, Superwhy, and The Electric Company.

    She was sitting with me late last night, and suddenly looked at my bookshelf and said, "Yes!" Yup, part of a title on the spine of a stacked book. She then read various other words, some she already knew, some she hadn't till that moment, and some she was clearly sounding out. After that, she read aloud three pages of Green Eggs and Ham. This afternoon, she was reading words she recognized in Little Toot (a favorite from when she was four).

    I don't know the exact method she is using to learn, but that she is learning is evident. I suspect that the exact method is unique to her, a particular blending of recognition and memorization, patterning, contextual clues, and phonics principles she's absorbed along the way.

    It's her own system, intended to be used for her own purposes. Mo one is teaching, and she is learning.

    Is it possible that, in the end, that is how all children learn to read: gathering the tools they need, blending them in a way that works for them, specifically, and then unraveling the code in their own time?

  22. @Shannon, More awesome stories! I love to read about natural learning with older kids. I'm watching it every day with my kids too, and I look forward to all the years of learning that are still to come. It's an amazing process.

  23. This is a little off topic but I have to point out a few of the rules we have in my school that generally confuse children or make them angry.

    1) We recently have a rule where we cannot carry out backpacks into our classrooms. We have to store them into our lockers and carry our binders into classrooms. I'm serious. This might not seem like a big deal, but this is very inconvenient for us. We drop things and the bigger children sometimes slap them out of our hands and if we're late to class, then it's our problem. The reason they made this rule was because there was a drug exchange on campus. Now to be on the safe side, they are making sure that when kids enter classrooms, there is no place in which they can hide things. The teachers say that we are not being punished. According to them, backpacks in classrooms were inconvenient for them because they were tripping on our stuff. Now, they can walk around the classrooms and we, meanwhile, strain our arms trying to carry our textbooks around and have to crawl under desks to get our stuff because that's where we have to put it.

    Now other than this our school is actually bearable because we get to go outside after lunch and we have gym. We do have a dress code and are not allowed to wear shorts and capris. If we complain about these rules the teachers tell us that it's our problem since we are the ones that decided to go to the school but there are some kids who's parents forced them to go to the particular school anyway.

    I can see how school can be a very confusing place. I also wanted to add to the comment about sleeping. I have seen situations where kids have enough homework to the point that they are up most of the night. It happened to my older brother. And the ungodly hours that school start in the morning. Like 7:00. There was even a new policy being considered that school would be eight hours long instead of six because appearently kids in America were not meeting the same critera as kids in China. This was discussed in our school and most of the teachers were trying to convince us that this new policy SHOULD be carried out. It's sad the way that kids aren't even allowed to disagree with the teachers like that. We spend enough time in school as it is. At least half of our day. Why should we have to spend more?