As part of my work duties, I was sent to photograph our representatives at the local 4th Street Forum panel debate. The debate is filmed and later broadcast on public television. Locally, it’s a pretty recognized event and on this day, the topic was one of a series on education.
I was asked three times on my way out to the forum just what I thought of it. That’s a dangerous question.
Lately, I’m less and less in favor of people continuing to talk about problems. Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is a festering wound in our city–or so say the talkers. Yet, another forum of those involved, offering their insights doesn’t really change the day to day reality of the teachers and students who are suffering.
What’s worse, is there are so many successes in MPS, yet there’s no endless stream of highly publicized round table discussions highlighting them. That’s frustrating to me (and probably to those intiating the success).
Overall, the problem is recognized as being bigger than just good teachers, nice facilities and new technology. Sure, No Child Left Behind is problematic, but there’s more to learning than kids in desks. So a child is at school for six hours, shuffled from one course lecture to another. That child first had to get there, get fed, have warm clothes, be wished well…then that child has to return, be asked how her day was, be encouraged to finish her homework, be prompted to review the day and be eager for the next.
I grew up in this environment. My dad even bought a beautiful old office desk and propped me up at it daily to make sure I had a proper space to complete my homework. One of or both of my parents was at every conference day, open house, sporting event, band event or more. They both worked, too, and were exhausted, but as child, I didn’t recognize this sacrifice on my behalf. I just always expected my parents to be there. Every child should be so lucky.
In exchange, I learned. A lot. I loved learning. I was constantly curious and felt it my duty to return home with some snippet of data for my parents. I loved math and science and reading. I lived close enough to our public library that after a young childhood of my mother reading to me nightly, I was dedicated to walking to the library and enjoying its services daily. I devoured books. I thrived on making good grades, on advancing, on getting to the next chapter or unit.
I may have been nerdy about my knowledge, but the sentiment was that knowledge was free, available and just out there for the taking. It seemed (and still does) like a great deal in my book. I was insatiable and my parents dutifully (and patiently) let me recant every science experiement, every spelling test, every paper thesis.
I spent 11 years in higher education just for the sake of learning. I was disappointed to find, in my first few years as a professor, that many of the students in my class didn’t love to learn, they loved simply to perform. “What does it take to pass?” “What’s the minimum I can do?” “Does it have to be five pages long?”
I fear our solutions to the school problem in America are pushing students to perform, not learn. Wanting to know more is the key, not wanting to pass, to get a job, to get trained, to be made ready for the work force…if we continue to parallel education with a job, service, or training, we’ll continue to get an attitude from students and parents that there’s a bar, it’s only so high, and you just have to get to it.
Imagine the kinds of possibilities if you instead focused on learning as a priority; not training. If the language of the debate changed to wonder and possibility not “equipped” and “job-ready” or “skills.” What if students and parents became engaged in the schools because they recognized your knowledge is the one thing in this world you can own, control and manage yourself? What if parents and students engaged education simply because they can, it’s a human quality to possess curiosity and in the wonderment of being fully human, let’s read a book?
The debate will continue to rage as student performance numbers drop, violence increases, teacher layoffs continue and expenses of education rise. We have to solve poverty, joblessness and home situations before students can truly succeed in an American classroom, but in order to start bringing those changes together, why can’t we change the rhetoric. If we’re going to insist on panel after panel, public discussion after discussion, let’s make our talk more powerful. Learning isn’t work, it’s freedom and it’s about time we get back to that framework.
Feminist, activist, outdoor advocate, animal lover, chocolate shake lover, reader, watcher, talker, actor, speaker, worker, writer, urban adventurer, hustler, involved, passionate, excited, ready.