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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cells, Bells and Cockle Shells

Cells, Bells and Cockle Shells

Too many of our public schools resemble cells, bells and cockle shells. Classrooms have generally remained as organized and restrictive as cells in a prison, with a single guard and two dozen inmates in each cell or enlarged cubicle. Bells determine movement from room to room and/or subject to subject with uniform intervals of time separating the segments. These class periods are usually the same length of time that they were forty or fifty years ago, no matter the growth within the knowledge of a discipline And the culture of schools are as tightly closed as cockle shell clams, those small edible saltwater clams that live in sandy, sheltered beaches, similar to the preferred environment of public schools.

How coincidental can it be - That the size and shape of most classrooms are identical to those that were built a hundred years ago? That the lessons are governed by the same 40-50 minute time frames as decades ago? (block scheduling produces the same number of total minutes over the course of a semester/year) That the organizational culture is altered only slightly from earlier constructs? All of this despite the introduction of advanced technology, the growth of neuroscience research findings, and the countless opportunities to re-design learning environments.

Some degree of the stagnation or lack of creativity may be attributed to the firm grip of a nostalgic population comprised of people (including legislators) who apply their thirteen years of personal experience in public schools (thus qualifying too many of them as “experts”) to shape and confine their vision of what a public school is and can be. During a time of accelerated change in society and many institutions, public schools offer a safe harbor to people who are overwhelmed and threatened by change. It’s a lingering vestige to the “good old days” that elude reality.  

However, perhaps the most significant culprit in the current state of public schools are those who govern schooling at the federal and state levels. The mountain of accountability measures introduced and mandated through legislation over the last dozen years (albeit in the form of reform – No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top) have promoted assessments that have borne a dependence on paper and paper, fill-in-the-bubble answers. These types of tests diminish the importance of writing and the creative process because such responses cannot be evaluated through electronic scanning or cost too much in time and money for human analysis.

The emphasis on assessment outcomes has unfortunately prompted schools to eliminate recess periods at the elementary level and electives at the secondary level in an effort to increase “instructional time” in the face of an economic climate that prevents districts from negotiating longer school days. These responses are likely a “cut their nose off to spite their face” reply to the pressure of increasing performance on high stakes tests. Recess periods provide a potentially healthy opportunity for children as well as a chance to engage in socialization. Both of these benefits are important, but shouldn’t we consider the need for a respite in the day for children subjected to the stress of heightened expectations? The decrease in electives at the secondary level rob learners of creative outlets and exposure to subjects that are often associated with increasing creativity and expression. Together, these changes to the instructional landscape result in a prioritization process that reduces classes to be categorized as either core or non-core.

The economic constraints over the last several years have compelled districts to reduce staff and programs, so this toxic combination often makes the decisions easier when budgets must be decreased. What does such a ranking convey to those teachers and learners involved in the “non-core” classes?

Elementary teachers are faced with a crucial decision, especially when tests results are directly related to teacher evaluation, in allocating time for subjects. Do I shave some minutes off of those subjects that are not tested by the state (in New York, creative writing, social studies and science) and devote that time to the pursuit of improved performance in those subjects that are tested by the state?

What are the long term outcomes?

That’s the lingering question that begs a response from those imposing these mandates:

What are the long term outcomes?

Most of us recall the word cockle shells from the children’s poem, Mary, Mary Quite Contrary. Here’s an updated version of another famous rhyme involving a different Mary. Mary had a Little Lamb. This poem is entitled, Mary the First Year Teacher.

Mary Had a Little Lamb                Mary was a First Year Teacher

Mary had a little lamb,                    Mary was a first year teacher,

his fleece was white as snow,               her teaching was a show

And everywhere that Mary went,       And every day the kids in class

the lamb was sure to go.                      were sure to learn and grow.

He followed her to school one day,    Her supervisor said one day,

which was against the rule,                she taught against the rule.

It made the children laugh and play   The children couldn’t laugh or play,

to see a lamb at school.                        just tests mattered in school

 And so the teacher turned it out,     Despite Mary being much in doubt,
but still it lingered near,                   losing her job was a fear.

And waited patiently about,            But, she wanted to shout about,

till Mary did appear.                       the loss of what was dear.

"Why does the lamb love Mary so?"     “Why does teacher hate teaching so?”

the eager children cry.                              the sad children did cry.

"Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know."  “I hate the new mandates, you know”

The teacher did reply.                                The teacher did reply.

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