TITLE: The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died... AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 18, 2005 5:40 AM DESC: What children experience in a classroom should bear some connection to life. It should help them to grow from where they are. ----- BODY: On his dinner conversation mailing list, Rich Pattis recently recommended the PBS movie A Touch of Greatness, about the teacher Albert Cullum. After attempting a career as a stage actor, Cullum began teaching in an elementary school in the late 1940s. He used poetry and drama as integral parts of his classroom, where children were encouraged to learn through productive work, not by listening to him. He believed that children have a natural affinity for great ideas and so introduced them to classic literature and real science immediately. I missed the PBS showing of the film and may not get around to seeing it any time soon, so I grabbed a couple of his books from the library. The book that explains his teaching approach best looks to be Push Back the Desks. I just started it last night. Over the weekend, though, I read his children's-book-for-adults, The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died But teacher Went Right On. I call it that because it is written just like a book for kindergarteners (one page of picture for each partial page of text, written with short sentences in a young student's voice) but is clearly aimed at adults. Indeed, the book is "dedicated to all those grownups who, as children, died in the arms of compulsory education". Cullum clearly thinks that education is something quite different from what usually goes on in our schoolrooms. (Does that sound familiar?) He has a point. Though I've certainly thought a lot about the shortcomings of compulsory education -- especially since my daughters reached school age, I'd never thought about all the little ways in which school can dehumanize and demotivate the wonderful little minds that our children have. Two passages from the book really struck a chord with me. In the first, a small child asks the teacher if she likes his picture of a cherry tree. The students has colored the cherries red and the leaves green, going against the instructions. "But, teacher, don't you see my rainbow? Don't you see all the colors? Don't you see me?" The second comes from a student who has learned that he is not good at anything in school:
I was good at everything
--honest, everything!--
until I started being here with you.
I was good at laughing,
playing dead,
being king!
Yeah, I was good at everything!
But now I'm only good at everything
on Saturdays and Sundays...
What a deep feeling of resignation this child must feel to find that what matters to him doesn't matter, and that he isn't good at what matters. This is what we tell students when we place the focus on what they don't know rather than on what more is out there. When we tell them that their own identity is less important than our vision of who they should be. Don't get me wrong. I don't believe in the Noble Savage theory about children, even children as learners. I don't think that a child's self-esteem can be made the centerpiece of all education. The child who colored the cherry tree backwards needs to learn to follow instruction. To suggest that this isn't an important skill to learn in school is to undermine an essential role in learning and thinking. And I don't believe that the second child was good at everything before he came to school. He may not have been good at much. But he felt like he controlled his enjoyment of the universe, at least in ways that mattered to him. He needs to learn that there is more to life than just laughing, playing dead, and being king. There are even times and places when those things aren't very important. But he doesn't need to learn that those things don't matter. And he doesn't need to learn that individuality isn't important. He simply needs to learn that the world is even bigger than his wonderful little mind knows just yet, and that he can do more and better things in this big world. Education is about expanding the child's mind, not limiting it. It should build on who the child is, not who the teacher is. It should increase the wonder, not extinguish it. Being this sort of teacher requires that most of us unlearn a lot of habits learned by example. Fortunately, most of us have had at least one teacher who inspired us in the ways Cullum suggests. I can think of many such teachers throughout my many years of education (Mrs. Brand, Mrs. Bell, Mr. Zemelko, Mr. Rickett, Mr. Smith, Dr. McGrath, and Dr. Stockman, to name a few). Even still, other habits formed -- and die hard, if at all, and only then after persevering. This is one of those situations in which I have some idea of what the right thing to do is, even if I don't do it very well yet. -----