Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The View from Fifth Grade

“I have a locker!”

You forget what’s important when you’re ten.

TW and I went to the parents’ open house at The Boy’s school. Now that he’s in fifth grade, he’s in a new building that unites the kids from the various elementary schools in the district. And yes, he gets a locker.

The principal greeted the parents, if you want to call his mumble a greeting. Honestly, one of the first principles of public speaking is “try to at least pretend to care.” His entire affect conveyed that he’d rather be almost anywhere else. This did not inspire confidence. The only time he seemed to engage was when he mentioned where parents should park.

The library made me sad. TB later reported that his class took a trip there, and he was disappointed in its selection. Luckily we have a good public library in town, and I’ve lent TB my kindle before. At the rate he blasts through books, electronic delivery may be our only hope of keeping up.

(I recently got him a subscription to Science Illustrated. If you have a smart/nerdy kid in the 9-12 range, it’s worth checking out. Great photos are the hook, but the stories hold his interest. He informed us the other day that our in-house wifi may be the reason that some of our plants look droopy. Who knew?)

If you really want to get depressed sometime -- say, you have some excess joie de vivre that you need to drain before some sort of somber occasion -- listen to a school nurse address parents. You will be amazed at some of the things that apparently need to be said.

But then we got to the classroom, and my faith was restored.

His class is smallish -- about twenty students -- and it has a teacher, a teacher’s aide, and a few drop-in specialists. It lacks air conditioning, so the only comfort was a rotating fan the PTO bought for it a few years ago. (The parents -- 16 women and 4 men, by my count -- struggled valiantly to be comfortable on the ridiculous furniture.) But the room is decent, the size is good, the teacher is clearly engaged, and the curriculum is ambitious.

Even there, though, parental involvement is key. TB brought home a math worksheet a few days ago on which he had a slew of red x’s. He had misunderstood “borrowing.” But the red x’s didn’t help him understand it; they just indicated that he had done something wrong. I had him work through a couple of problems in front of me, narrating each step as he did it; the error became obvious quickly, and we were able to fix it. It would have been wonderful if his teacher had been able to do that, but she couldn’t. There was too much to get through.

His teacher repeatedly mentioned the statewide standardized test to which she has to teach. It’s our state’s manifestation of No Child Left Behind, and it leaves relatively little time to linger over misunderstandings. Let me make one change, and this would be it. (Air conditioning would be a close second.) As an old professor of mine used to say, there’s a choice to be made in teaching: you can cover, or you can uncover. Uncovering takes time, and requires patience, but it can lead to actual understanding. Getting through the topics on the exam requires covering. Do too much of that, though, and the kids get bored and tune out.

It looks like the burden to fill in the gaps will fall largely on the parents. We’ll do what we can with TB -- luckily for us, he’s a smart kid -- but I worry about the kids whose parents aren’t as focused on education. If school is all they get, and school is designed around a multiple-choice test, they really aren’t getting much at all.

The social scene is evolving. Kids aren’t pairing off yet, but TB informs me that boys and girls are “checking each other out for junior high.” Apparently at this point it’s mostly about who sits with whom on the bus, though I’m sure it will quickly become more complicated. TB has a couple of favorites, but he doesn’t seem too worked up about it. That seems about right to me. Take your time, kid...

And we got notice that it’s time to pick instruments for the school band. Someday I want someone to explain to me why the options offered are so anachronistic. You can choose trombone, but not guitar; clarinet, but not piano. If we were even halfway serious about the benefits of music...

And don’t even get me started on why we wait until language acquisition is more difficult before starting to teach Spanish. If we really meant it, we’d start in kindergarten.

This is a pretty good public district in a state known for relatively strong public schools. It’s fifth grade, and I’m already seeing holes. We’ll do our darndest with TB, but suddenly the whole “so many students need remediation” thing is starting to make sense. In the meantime, TB is enjoying his locker.