Minds Like Sieves

My Greek teacher used to tell me, “Your mind is like a sieve!” – usually because I’d put the wrong kind of accent on a word. He was a meticulous man, and expected the same from his students.

Though he never said so, I suppose he wanted our minds to be like stopped-up sinks, filling up and never losing a drop. It’s an imperfect metaphor (think about all that Greek flooding onto the floor), but I’m pretty sure this is how our governor understands teaching and learning.

A teacher’s job (perhaps his thinking goes) is to pour knowledge into those eager little sinks, making sure that the drains are properly closed and that there are no leaks. A bad teacher doesn’t keep the tap open, or allows the water to leak away, or maybe fills the sink with potato skins and banana peels so the disposal gets clogged and the sink fills with yucky gray water.

Here’s where the metaphor breaks down. Having a brain full of useless facts is just as bad as having a sink full of stagnant water. A student can pass a standardized test without ever really learning anything important. We graduate them; when they get to college, they realize how little they’ve learned.

Teaching is not just dispensing information. There are facts kids should know, but without critical thought, information is worthless.

Most teachers understand that we have to clear out the garbage before we can pour in anything new. Alas, our curriculum is all about the input. How do you ‘un-teach’ things that kids ‘know’? The curriculum guide doesn’t explain that; it just tells me to cover what will be on the test.

Another problem is that somebody keeps throwing garbage in the sink, and we spend all our time unclogging it. Every time kids turn on the television or surf the internet, they are learning things – but not learning to evaluate them. They believe things because they saw them on YouTube or read them at Ask.com.

Our governor doesn’t know about all the garbage. He just wants teachers to stop blaming the sinks. He suspects that we are pouring vast quantities of cooking grease down their drains. His solution? Drano — for us, not the clog.

If teachers are mind plumbers, our job should be to keep things flowing, not fill the sink. Students’ brains should be like sieves, filtering out what is incorrect or illogical. But it’s not simple; when you live surrounded by garbage, you don’t realize that it stinks.

It would be much better if we stopped treating kids like passive receptacles. “Fix a kid’s drain and his sink will work for a day; train him to be a plumber, and he’ll charge you $60 an hour, plus parts.”

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Mandatory Opportunities

While I am at heart an anarchist, I admit that many rules are sensible. Wearing a seatbelt needs to be a law because some people don’t have the individual sense to preserve their own lives. And we’re all here together in the circle of life.

I said that wrong. I mean we’re all together in the spiral of ‘out of control insurance rates.’

What I object to are laws that are actually thinly-disguised ‘mandatory opportunities.’ Laws should protect us from people who hurt other people, not from ourselves.

Compulsory education is such a law. Up until the age of about fourteen, it makes sense to compel children to go to school. For one thing, some parents don’t take their responsibilities seriously, and their children might never get an education otherwise. For another, it gives everyone the basics. What they choose to do with those basic skills is a different matter. But we all learn to read, write, and do math. We all learn where Ohio is and how many inches there are in a foot.

Politicians talk a lot about education. They all have an answer, even though most of them haven’t been in a school for years. But nobody will touch the issue of compulsory education, a ‘mandatory opportunity’ for all kids, because America is supposed to be the country where all are educated, not just a select few skimmed off the top of the primary school vat. We don’t believe in ‘tracking’ kids by performance or ability — an educational class system. We don’t want to leave anyone behind, even those who drag their feet or sit down and refuse to budge.

What we teach kids is that there are no consequences. There is nothing a child can do that will get him or her kicked out of school permanently — until the age of eighteen, when they are dumped into a society that gives few second chances.

I believe in second chances. Messing up teaches us useful lessons. More

Why Kids Can’t Write, and What We Can Do About It

After years of worksheets and quizzes, many students arrive in high school with brains largely unscathed by grammar. I know this because I teach both English and Latin. It is obvious to me who understands subjects and verbs, especially in my Latin classes.

People who have studied a foreign language generally understand the grammar of their own language better than those who have not. This is one way foreign language teachers justify their existence — we will teach them grammar so English teachers can focus on dramatic irony, rising action, oxymorons and other stuff that might be on the state graduation test or the S.A.T.

I have nothing against literary analysis. Through reading and analyzing literature, students gain a new perspective. They understand that jealousy and revenge are universal, not just things that happen when you put a lot of teenagers in a large building and call it high school.

But it’s tough to write about jealousy and revenge when you don’t have the tools to express yourself. The subordination of one idea to another doesn’t just happen by throwing lots of ideas at students. My students have many ideas; they come out in long rambles beginning with “So…” and are strung together with “and” and “because.” Their reasoning never takes shape; if it does, it’s a circle. They write things like, “School should not be mandatory because students should have a choice.”

Why don’t kids learn grammar? And it’s not only grammar — why don’t they know how to spell and punctuate? More

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