I am currently a lecturer in the School of Education at Edgewood College, and an instructor at the University of Wisconsin’s Odyssey Project, Madison, Wisconsin. I was formerly an English and theater teacher at schools in and around Rochester, New York. I even have a fancy Ph.D. from a school that likes to boast of its #1 ranking (by U.S. News and World Report). I’ve been an educator for about 40 years, which offers some perspective as I look back to see where we’ve been and forward to figure out where we’re heading. Recently, I was asked to write for Busted Pencils and agreed to give it a try. It seems I should be doing something; it’s just that I’m not sure I’m a real academic. I’m not sure I’ve learned what academics are supposed to learn.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with schools. It’s just not in our DNA to sit still for seven and a half hours each day. In order for schools to function, we need to suspend our disbelief of schools as dreadfully boring places where worksheets and tests with questions about iambic pentameter and tragic hero are better and healthier than being outside playing and exploring.
I think I truly do love learning cool stuff, and I have found no end to cool stuff that for whatever reason interests me. Stories are cool. Even poetry can be cool. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain.” Call me WEIRD, but I get that. But so much of school has so little to do with cool stuff and so much to do with compliance. And labeling. Compliance and labeling go together. People who comply are “normal.” People who don’t comply, or worse, people who resist compliance, are “not normal.” In fact, a whole industry has developed around the idea of normalcy: Who is and who is not.
The cruelest ploy is that when the normal is defined, so is the abnormal: those who don’t belong, the misfits, the silenced, the different. Those who resist any aspect of being normal are not normal and are labeled as such. Normalcy does not come with any guarantees, but those who are involved in the production of normalcy are often highly rewarded.
Like any other product, for example a smart phone, normalcy can be developed, produced, marketed and sold for very tangible profits. Schools are now maintained for quality control, but maintenance comes at a cost. More and more tax dollars are being spent on profiteers who sell what they package as “normal.”
For many years, I played the part of a high school English teacher in Upstate New York. I had times of normalcy (tons of idiotic, but well-intentioned worksheets) and times when I couldn’t very well stay inside the lines. I had colleagues, administrators, and sometimes students and parents who didn’t appreciate when I acted like some Robin Williams character, but there were so many others who loved being jolted out of their seats with some outrageous provocation:
“If Romeo lived in today’s world, should he go to jail for statutory rape? Check out the nurse’s soliloquy where she tells how old Juliet is. And wasn’t Juliet something like a Crip and Romeo a Blood? How does that grab ya? And while we’re at it, should kids your age be reading books about lust, drugs, and gangs? And did you know that Shakespeare got an older woman pregnant and her father made him marry her? Did I just make that up? Somebody wanna go look that up? Maybe we should ban Shakespeare, don’t-cha- think?”
New York State now offers districts throughout the state pre-scribed lessons, ironically labeled “Engage NY,” purposefully void of such cool stuff. Engage NY is distributed with the understanding that its “modules” convey what a normal student needs to know in order to be career and college ready. Here’s an example of questions from a pre-scripted lesson from Engage New York, the packaged curricula that New York State bought with its Race-to- the-Top money:
- What is the “many-hued procession” that Riis describes in lines 3-7?
- What details about the “newcomers” do I notice as I read this sentence?
- Does anyone give a rat’s patootie?
Now that’s normal stuff high school kids should be thinking about to be prepared for work and college. (Ok, that 3rd question is mine. I think it’s a pretty good question.)
So that’s pretty much where I’m coming from. Learning should be about cool stuff and teachers should be the on-the-scene professionals who know how to get students engaged in thinking about all those cool things that float kids’ boats. It’s only normal.
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