Bonus Material: Kurt Wootton and “Teach Your Children Well”

Tuesday night’s Parent Book Club on “Teach Your Children Well” was so packed with information that Kurt and I decided to cut a part of his terrific essay, “Dance Like No One’s Watching.” But after re-reading the parts we cut, and talking with my father, who (also) taught public school for his entire career, I decided that these small but important bits are vitally important to another part of the discussion: if we are going to foster true learning and help kids develop a roadmap for authentic success, we’re going to have to talk about teaching, too.

Here’s the part of Kurt’s essay that didn’t make it:

My father, who was a public school teacher, told me once that teaching in a large, traditional, neighborhood school isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. One of my colleagues who teaches English in a Boston Public School sees 140 students every day. We know that giving students multiple choice tests, pop quizzes, and other quick assessments doesn’t truly measure their learning, but you can imagine how long it takes to grade an essay. Let’s do some quick math: 140 students x 10 minutes to read and grade a paper = 23.34 hours. That’s time spent outside of school and doesn’t include the planning time needed to prepare classes. You can see why teachers and school districts might take shortcuts by giving students multiple-choice tests that can be graded by a machine. 

The morning after Parent Book Club, my dad called to talk about ‘authentic success’ and the innovative classroom teaching that leads to tinkering, investigating, and deeper learning for students. When I told him what Kurt’s dad had said, he backed it up, and added, “There are teachers who are taking the material and presenting it in innovative ways; there are lots of creative teachers out there, no doubt. But the combination of factors that a teacher faces on a daily basis make it extremely difficult to sustain.”

We forget many times that teachers are people, too; they have families and friends and bills to pay. I know an extra unpaid 23+ hours a week would make me cranky. Yet if we are gearing our kids toward authentic success, and want them to be less focused on grades and test scores (and therefore less stressed out, depressed and freer to enjoy learning), then we must address the way the current system works – and its dogged chase of, well, grades and test scores. After re-reading this cut paragraph a few times, I got frustrated and emailed Kurt.

“What can we do about this?” I typed testily. It was only a few minutes later that I received a long, detailed list of why the school system is unable to support the kind of open-ended learning we are talking about in reference to Levine’s book – besides the obvious time constraints. He rattled off ways in which teacher development could be better, more creative, and involve teachers’ self-reflection more, and Kurt was quick to mention that it’s a complex issue and shouldn’t be looked at in clear black-and-white, but still I wanted to share a few key nuggets of the long list he wrote at 10PM:

  • ” A radically wrong-minded emphasis on testing and the results.”
  • “High student workload and little planning time. Some teachers teach 140 students a week with a 45 minute planning period during the day. They are exhausted and they are just trying to get by.”
  • “Lack of possibility and opportunity. Many teachers don’t know about and schools don’t support radical teacher professional development (like the Habla Teacher Institute.) Teachers should have the chance to travel, to take summer courses in universities, and to work with diverse organizations—and schools should pay for it!”
  • But here’s the kicker, the one that really got me: “Lack of valuing exploration and creativity from a policy and administrative level. This relates back to 1 (testing and results), but creativity can’t be quantifiably measured. It’s more difficult to evaluate learning in a creative space, and therefore the “effectiveness” of an education environment.  Great teaching and learning is messy and a bit chaotic.”

Hmmm. It seems that administrators and policy makers should join our Parent Book Club, so they could also read “Teach Your Children Well,” and see what lack of valuing exploration and creativity is doing to our kids in the long haul.

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