141. K-8 in Another Century

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I’ve known a lot of them. The good ones are a treasure beyond price and the bad ones ought to be shot – metaphorically, at least. Fortunately the bad ones are fairly rare and they usually don’t last.

Back in October I praised my high school teachers in a post that I plan to run again tomorrow. After high school and a couple of decades of assorted adventures, I became a teacher myself. I didn’t plan it that way; in fact, it was the shock of a lifetime.

I grew up in a different world. In many ways, a farm in Oklahoma in the fifties was closer to the nineteenth century than to the twenty-first. The same could be said about my elementary school. Those old ways were not necessarily better. Neither are our new ways, but a comparison can be useful.

I started school in first grade. Kindergarten existed in the cities, but not where I lived, and preschool was unheard of. Talala School had shrunk over the years as the town lost population. The building was half full of students when I enrolled. Mrs. Stout taught first and second grades in one room. There were eight first graders and about ten in second graders. We first graders were taught reading, then we worked on our own while the second graders were taught reading. Then we were taught spelling; then we worked alone while she taught spelling to the second graders. And so forth. We spent half of every day working uninstructed, but under her eagle eye. By the end of the year, we had heard everything she taught to the second graders. The next year, we heard it again, in the same room, with new kids in our old first grade desks.

Third and fourth grades meant a new room, a new teacher, but the same pattern. Fifth and sixth meant the same pattern again, except that in fifth grade the Russians launched Sputnik and science was added to the curriculum. By sixth grade the high school was consolidated and gone; we moved to the high school end of the building, but still with two classes per teacher. For the last three years of its existence, Talala School was seven-eighths empty and haunted by the few students who remained. When I was in eighth grade, there were still eight students in my class, but the only two remaining in seventh grade. They were moved on to the consolidated school and for the first time in my elementary career, we had a full-day teacher all to ourselves.

Educationally deprived? Don’t you believe it. For seven years we had worked and learned all day, every day, and that was plenty. Having a full time teacher in eighth grade was no better, and no worse.

Fast forward through high school, college, military service, more college, becoming a writer, more college, until thirty years later I found myself teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Now we had Kindergarten, and pre-school, and pre-pre-school, and nursery school, and before school help, and after school help, and tutors, and ———

A true believer might say that students needed all that help. A moralist might say that they had to be made to work more hours because they were lazy. A cynic might say that somebody had to warehouse the kids until their parents got home – whenever that might be.

Algebra was moved from the ninth grade to the eighth. The theory was that  they needed readiness, which is code for, “If they aren’t smart enough do learn algebra in the ninth grade, start teaching it in eighth. If that doesn’t work, start in seventh.” All down the line, I watched subjects get moved earlier and earlier, while the students’ scores went lower and lower, and pre-school started a year sooner.

The goal, clearly, was pre-natal algebra.

Somewhere in the middle of my career, a local high school announced that they were going to begin teaching Advanced Placement classes. That sounded like a program where I would fit in as a teacher, so I attended their orientation. Maybe I misjudged them (I don’t think so) but I heard nothing about better teaching or deeper understanding. Instead, I heard a lot about more hours, more work, more reports, a chance to get ahead of the other guy, and to earn college credits while still in high school.

I was not impressed. I returned to teaching challenging things which were age and skill appropriate – to filling my students’ days with knowledge, while leaving their nights and weekends free for the other lessons life would teach them.

While you’re learning, learn. While you’re playing, play. If you’re in high school, get what high school has to offer. If you are too advanced to do that, move to college.

If this be treason, make the most of it.

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