Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guns and Murder

Is "guns and murder" an appropriate topic of study in public school?

Recently I participated in a meeting of my district’s policy committee as we were developing a new policy on our basic instructional program. My district has been actively moving from what is called a “traditional” model of education to a “standards-based” program for a few years, and it’s necessitating some changes to our policies, one of the last steps toward full implementation of the new system.

Now, for my money, the only change that would significantly shift the paradigm from “traditional” to something new and better would be to shape student learning around their strengths, interests, and pleasures. The incessant clamoring to “bring the basics” back to student learning? We’re covered.  The “basics” are defined differently from adult to adult, but for some reason, everyone and their dog seems to think the learning of the multiplication tables is the most critically important task we can give our students. I’m willing to go further: you want basics? Reading, writing and math? Get kids involved in exploring the stuff they think about, talk about, and itch to explore. Give them an environment where they can make and create. Focus on who they are, each as individuals and collectively, as groups who gather around similar interests. The basics will happen.  It isn’t rocket science.

Well, actually, I’ve been told that rocket science isn’t really rocket science either; it’s rather simple when you come down to it. Put an engine facing down and a rocket facing up. Pack in enough fuel and a way to ignite it. Park a few people at the very top and try to attain orbital velocity. Bang. (Literally.) Rocket science.

How about this?

It’s not organic chemistry.

All of the scholastic achievers in my life have complained about organic chemistry. Empowering kids to learn is not organic chemistry; it’s more like rocket science: engine, fuel, rocket. Ignition, bang, liftoff.

So, back to my policy committee meeting.

My opinion of the newfangled “standards based” system isn’t all that high. I won’t go into why; you can read back in this blog.

Actually, since my last posts about my reasons for opposing the system, I’ve observed classrooms in three elementary schools and a middle school. I come out of that with admiration for teachers and principals working diligently to engage kids in learning the standards set down as important by the educational powers that be.  Some of them are doing great work; some of them are doing adequate work. All of them are working as hard as they can to engage kids in their learning.

None of them are empowering kids to do the learning that would be most meaningful to them.

So I have opinions about how we should shape a policy on our basic instructional program. I know my place; I’m one voice among eleven on our board, and we have collectively decided to pursue this road toward a standards-based system. We are all subject to laws on accountability, and we have very little wiggle-room, given the weight that has been given to teach the Common Core standards and be prepared for the tests that will demonstrate student “achievement.” So I’m not trying to stage an educational revolution in the policy committee room. I’m there mainly to be a pain in the ass, and try to insinuate some words into policy that give kids as much power as can be eked out of the system.

One instance of the replaying of my usual sentence, “Allow kids to follow their interests” provoked an outburst from one of the administrators around the table. “You know what kids in my school would want to study if we gave them the freedom? Guns and murder!”

I was taken aback and didn’t respond in the way that I knew, even then, that I should. I chickened out. I said instead, “Let’s not talk about the outliers as if they were the mainstream! Not everyone is going to want to study destructive subjects.”

What should I have said? Can you guess? I bet you can.

“Guns and murder? We can work with that. Want to raise the chances of kids being safer with guns? Let them study them. I wonder if you can get a plastic replica of a gun, one you can take apart and study its action and it’s mechanism. History. Famous guns. Guns of today. Gun laws. Write your position on gun control. Voila.

“Want to guarantee a kid won’t grow up to be a murderer? Let him study it. Study the Mansons. Study Gary Gilmore. Study violent death around the world. Study what happens when they get caught. Study what happens when they don’t.”

It doesn’t matter what they want to learn! I search my mind for stuff I really wouldn’t want a kid to study, and I fall upon pornography. I find I don’t have room in my mind for creating a course of study in that area. But I can’t think of another subject that you can’t make into something appropriate for school.

The thing is, this administrator doesn’t seem to know this. She didn’t know that the most important thing to give kids is your respect, and she didn’t know that the first thing you need to do to demonstrate that respect is to allow kids to study what they feel they most need to learn. Because learning what you want to know most doesn’t narrow your interests and your skills; it grows them. Pushing kids to learn stuff they don’t care about? THAT narrows learning.

Allow a kid to open his/her own doors, and more doors will open. Show a kid you respect what he feels he needs to learn most, and you will gain his trust. Then you’ve won the game. Continue to show that respect, and you will gain even more trust. “I”ll learn what you say I need to learn, because you have shown respect and supported my efforts to learn what I really want to know or the skill I feel I need to gain.”

How often do we allow kids in public education to get to that point? Exactly never. I mean, so seldom that it might as well be never. It can’t be proven that kids will respond badly to being given the freedom to learn because we simply have never tried it. All we’ve tried, in the lifetimes of kids who are in school now, is forced curriculum.

And in the standards-based system, where you are allowed to learn “at your own pace, and in your own way,” the same basic subjects are pushed at kids as under the “old, traditional” model. There is no education revolution here. This is newer, shinier coercive education.

There is occasional brilliance in our school district. Great teachers who inspire kids. Who work hard to get kids motivated (“motivating” being the process of first denying them the learning that they want, and then “getting them motivated” to perform tasks that are disconnected from their identities or interests. This demotivation process has been in operation since we first told kids to stop playing and come inside, sit at a desk and face the teacher).

But it’s no learning revolution.  Give the kid a chance to study guns and murder if he wants to, and you’ll create a learning revolution that is real.


  1. And almost no one in this country with any pull in educational politics or policy hears you, which is tragic for another generation of kids.

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts Lisa. Here's the transcript of a my recent presentation on a panel at SXSWedu. -

  3. I'm even more willing to go out on a limb. For high school, it wouldn't be inconceivable to me to have pornography touch off meaningful investigations. Not of the actual material, but in a less sexually insane country, conversations about the economic, psychological, ethical, social, and political implications might lead to powerful and engaging schoolwork. Not required ("Them damn liberals are forcing porn on our innocent young babes!") but as some sort of senior seminar. The problem with anything of real potential interest in this country is that if it doesn't fit a narrow framework of traditional (painful) academic "rigor," it can't possibly be worth looking at, regardless of how much kids might be motivated to do real thinking and learning as a result. We're such a smutty, repressed, puritanical little nation.

  4. I always thought kids need to pick their teachers. What better way to find the passionate ones. Dumb idea, I guess.

    1. Not dumb at all! I admit there might be logistical problems with it, but it is a way to empower kids.