Transforming Education: How Children Learn

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Staff Note: This article is to introduce you to a blog called Educare4aChange where experienced teacher Anna Jacopetti hopes to stimulate a conversation about the current education system in the United States and how to transform it to a system that works for children, teachers and families. If you care about this issue, we hope you will join the discussion by commenting below the article.

Like every other public institution in the United States, our education system is simultaneously under attack and flailing in its attempt to defend itself. Politicians and pundits jump into the fray as No Child Left Behind morphs into Race To The Top. Schools are forced to comply with high stakes testing in order to get funding. Budgets are cut to the bone and teachers, struggling to make ends meet, are forced to teach to tests that seem to be designed to ensure that many schools, teachers and children will fail. The vaunted Common Core, for example, that will replace the STAR tests in California and most other states in 2015, is not developmentally appropriate, particularly in the younger grades. It was not designed by teachers who know what children can actually do at different ages. When it was previewed this year in New York schools, the testers had a new problem to solve: what to do with tests that stressed children had vomited on. Really.

Public schools, once seen as the keystone of democracy and the agent of an informed and responsible citizenry, are now facing takeovers by for-profit charter schools that cut teacher salaries and spending per pupil while pocketing profit from federal funding. How did we come to such a pass? When I was growing up, California boasted the world’s best educational system. My four years at U.C. Berkeley were essentially free. With health care included, I paid the Regents $150 a year in student fees. I did not have to take standardized tests or honors courses to be admitted. U.C. accepted my application with a transcript of courses and GPA. My ability to attend this prestigious university was considered an earned right, supported by the citizens of California through their taxes.

A student entering UCB next year will pay $13,200 in tuition. If her parents are not wealthy, she will most probably be indentured for decades to a usurious student loan scam. According to a recent article in Education Week, California now ranks 49th among the states in per pupil spending. Last year at the school where I was Education Director, the administration decided to take a 5% cut in salary and our teachers gave up five days of instruction in order to maintain our bare bones program. This, in one of the richest states in the richest country in the world.

The reasons for this devolution are complex, reflecting the values of our late stage neoliberal free market economic system that seems unable to correct its trajectory towards catastrophe. That said, corporate influence in public education has been pernicious for many years. A passionately engaged English and Drama teacher, I was horrified in the mid 1980’s that my new local public school required teachers to be on the same page on the same day in the same text throughout the district. That a school district would have so little respect for its teachers to force them into a scripted straightjacket violated everything I understood about creativity and learning. The idea that teachers did not know how to teach and needed to be guided by “experts” had taken hold. Textbook companies and corporate testing “services” increasingly determined how and what should be “taught” to children. I am not surprised that schools with a history of such rigid curricular mandates are floundering.

I found a job teaching reading in a school that still encouraged teacher initiative. I chose to use the Junior Great Books, a series that employs rich and varied language to tell age appropriate stories. Second Grade children are word sponges, full of curiosity and pleasure as they gain understanding of the world around them through expanding vocabularies This is not a rote learning process. These children enjoyed the fairy tales and legends that they could vividly imagine through the rich language, but they were most excited about learning new words that they could use in their own stories and in their conversations. We wrote their favorite new words on the board . Soon the children were bringing in other words that they had heard (but not understood) from their reading or from conversations overheard at home. We added these to our Words of Power and the list grew, with words like soporific, synchronicity, catastrophe, and surreptitious to remember only a few. The whole class was now engaged and there were no discipline problems. Reading fluency improved by leaps and bounds.

After Easter break, we had exhausted our Jr. Great Books and I turned to an Open Court textbook series that the school had purchased. I was pleased that it presented classic stories and myths, but after a few days the children balked. They told me that they didn’t like the new book. When I asked them why, they quickly consensed that all the Words of Power had been taken out of the stories. Open Court had carefully limited the language to words that were proscribed for Second Graders and these words were declared “boring” by the class. So I asked them to tell me what made a word “powerful” and they were quiet for a few minutes. Then Esme raised her hand and said ,“When you look up a word of power in the dictionary and you read all the definitions, you still don’t know everything it means.” I have never forgotten this moment. Moments such as these kept me going through decades of teaching. In such moments learning is palpable and children’s eyes light up with understanding and pride. These moments can’t be scripted or measured, but they are exemplary of an emergent, radiant process of learning that education should nurture, respect and protect at all costs.

I am highlighting here what it means to nurture capacities rather than “teach to standards”. Had I introduced vocabulary lists, assigned all the children to look up words in the dictionary as homework and then tested them to see if they had “learned” the words, I would have had a very different result. Children have a capacity for language acquisition in early childhood that is quite remarkable. They master complex syntax and the basic grammatical constructions of English before they go to school. They have learned subject verb agreement, verb tenses and proper use of adjectives and adverbs by kindergarten. They learn through conversation and by listening. The richer and more omnipresent language is in their surroundings, the more stories they hear, the stronger their language skills and their imaginative faculties become. Many first and second graders will know the lines to a play or a story “by heart” after hearing them only a few times – faster than older children and much faster than adults. Nurturing and building on this innate capacity is a key for language instruction in the early grades. Reciting and retelling come before writing. Dictating and then finally writing their own stories is a very engaging and empowering process for children that ideally precedes reading.

Ami had written such a story for her first grade class. This was not an assignment. She asked about spelling many of the words and I wrote them on the board for her. When she finished the story I suggested that she share it with her classmates. She excitedly stood up and with her eyes dancing began to read out loud what she had written. Midway she stopped, her mouth opened wide and she exclaimed, “I’m reading!” “I can read!” . And everyone clapped. This shining moment of discovery could not have been engineered. Other children were inspired by Ami to write stories, too, and soon a number of children were writing and reading their stories to each other.

By second grade all of the children in this class were writing, retelling and reading their work. We had accomplished this skill without drilling and testing. There was a range of fluency in the class, but all children were enthusiastic writers and readers.

“We dance with light feet and enjoy our selfs and imagine we are flying. Then we go to bed and dream of our dancing. We are awakened by the morning him self and he takes us to his castel. Inside we go to the courtyard. There we see a beautiful malorn tree in bloom. Faintly it shines as if it was the sun shapd as a tree. The end”

I have a photo copy of this writing by second grader James on the wall above my desk. It celebrates the birth of his shining imaginative capacity. I did not need to give James an assessment test to know that he would excel.

In Waldorf schools, third grade children hear stories from the Jewish tradition. I introduced the Creation Story of Genesis by painting the days of creation with the children each morning for seven days. First I read the words in English and then in Hebrew, and then we painted with water colors, repeating the process and adding something new each day. The children enjoyed the painting, but I let it rest in them and did not talk about it further. At the end of the following summer in the beginning of fourth grade, Nate brought me this poem:

Morning at the Cabin in Mendocino
(with instructions NOT to wake mom up)
The sky’s like Creation
In a way
Because in the morning, like Creation,
The sky is all gray.
With a “Let there be light” –
There’s a streak of it –
You can’t see the sun
But you know it’s lit.
Remember “Let there be color”?
Well look in the morning
You should see the clouds ARE red
If you’re not snoring.
Then there was Blue.
Well the sky itself turns color.
At this point it is SO amazing.
You’d go and get your mother.
You’re looking for yellow,
But the sun starts to rise,
And yellow light starts
Shimmering in the skies.
So then there was plants,
But look all around,
There’s tall trees in the sky
And grass on the ground.
Then God made Animals
You heard a bird coo.
There’s also a deer,
Looking straight at you.
Then God made Humans,
You look at your mom
You look at her from head to toe
You look at her palm to palm.
That’s why the sky
Is like Creation
This shall go on
For Duration.

A teacher is witness to wonders, surprises and blessings as capacities unfold. Nate could now make connections between what he had learned and his experience This poem tells me that he is applying his knowledge. He is telling me that the creation story went in deep and is now illuminating his world. And that illumination, in turn, is inspirational. It makes sense of things, finds meaning in experience and fills everyone who reads it with pleasure. Again, this was all the assessment I needed. This capacity for connections that Nate expresses so wonderfully wakes up around nine years old with a noticeable change in consciousness. Children at nine are thinking about things in a new way. The teacher sees this and responds by asking new kinds of questions and providing the children with opportunities to experience and to reflect on that experience. This is the dance of the classroom, of learning and of teaching, an art that cannot be scripted and measured any more than a work of art can be created by painting by numbers.

In a recent article, “How to Foster Imagination in Students”, veteran teacher and education writer Marion Brady quotes Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Brady goes on to say that there is no changing the past, but “the arrival (of the future) is inevitable, we have at least some control over it, the importance of exercising that control wisely is self evident (except perhaps in Congress), and if schools don’t teach how to do it, it’s not going to get done – at least not on a scale sufficient to save our skins. To that end, there is no getting around the central role played by imagination. If probable, possible and preferable futures can’t be imagined, the skills necessary for coping with those alternatives aren’t going to be developed. And if those skills aren’t developed, America will continue its downward educational trajectory.”

Sadly, this downward trajectory affects all areas of our political, economic and cultural life, shaping our expectations, the contents and abilities of our minds and the quality of the lives that we and our children will live, determining whether we will be agents of our future with strong capacities for imagining, thinking critically and creating solutions – or victims of the implacable forces we have set in motion by our ignorance of natural world, of the social forces, and of ourselves.

All children have these inborn potential capacities, but they do not share equal conditions for their growth. Poverty, early trauma, misguided systems of discipline, weak parenting all play a part in shutting children down and stopping maturation. A good public school, however, can be a place where children are provided an equal opportunity to develop their unique gifts and to grow up in a healthy manner. Teachers, like good gardeners, can strive to create the best possible conditions for learning and then tend the process with care and with love, watching and responding to needs, working to remove impediments, and trying to balance what is needed for each child. Skills may be mastered and assessed, but far more important are the unquantifiable qualities that come from a growing interest in and understanding of the natural world, our human history and our present challenges.

It is our responsibility to see that children are able to mature into healthy strong adults whose lives will bear fruit. That means we need to understand child development and carefully craft our lessons and experiences and stories to meet the children where they are. Asking them to do tasks before they are cognitively ready for them is not only ineffective, but directly harmful, bringing stress and alarm into what should be a joyful process of self discovery. Too much stress and alarm, we know now, stops development and maturation in its tracks. A test that makes a child vomit is harmful not only to the child, but to the nation. Children who are asked to do repetitious tasks that are “boring”, who are pushed to meet “standards” that are not developmentally appropriate, will not become children who love learning They may be able to score well on multiple choice tests, but their capacities for independent thought and creativity will be stunted. They may be “career ready”, but will in no way be prepared for the enormous challenges that face us as a species.

We nurture capacities through relationship. Children need to feel safe in order to learn; they will learn from and follow the teachers who are able to connect strongly with them and who are adaptive to their needs. Such adults also understand that children learn best from experience, from doing rather than memorizing, discovering rather than regurgitating. From an early age they also learn best from stories – tales told well and vividly that move us to laughter and to tears, make sense of experience, pass forward the wisdom of generations and connect the future with what is best from the past. The true processes of education are based in the root concept – educare – which means “to lead outward”. Seeing education as a slow developmental process that expands through childhood until the young person is able to grasp and engage with the larger world is very different than seeing education as discrete sets of information and skills that can be quantifiably measured.

The purpose of my blog is to explore each of the ingredients necessary for learning: relationship, experiential education, the importance of stories and the arts, and the developmental roadmap that gives us a template for healthy maturation. I want to look at the way we structure the physical environment of our schools and question the prevailing classroom management and discipline policies, asking what must change for education to be a healing force for children who have experienced trauma or who are struggling with disabilities. I want to describe what I have exerienced as the essential ingredients of a vibrant and healthy education system and offer a strong rebuttal to the impersonal forces of modern corporatism, led by billionaire Bill Gates, that are focused only on profit and “measurable” outcomes.

I ask, in turn, for your thoughts, your responses, and your stories. The topics are way too big for one perspective. There are so many of you out there who love children and are dedicating your lives to helping them learn and grow. Perhaps by sharing our stories and standing together we can begin to reclaim our profession and be worthy of the children who need us to orient them if they are not to be lost in the face of a future that none of us could have imagined.

In the fifty years since I first began to teach English in high school, I have taught all of the grades (1-14) as well as teaching teachers. For the past 25 years I have worked in Waldorf schools, first as a teacher, then as an administrator in a public Waldorf Charter School. From the beginning to my retirement this year, the children have been my teachers, showing me what they need in order to learn and to grow into caring, responsible and creative human beings.