I’m sitting here this morning, cozy and warm, listening to a storm raging outside. Richard just mentioned something one of his Facebook friends posted, and once again my mind started meandering. So I decided to stop and see where it might lead …
Here’s what his friend wrote: “If you want the kids’ test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get them actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test.”
I flashed back to circa 1970 when I started teaching 4th Grade at Santa Anita Elementary School in Arcadia. Social Studies for 4th graders in California has always meant “California History,” and back then that meant to start with the first unit in the book and move chapter by chapter through the book as far as you could get before June. That usually meant that we’d finish the Gold Rush just in time for Open House.
The first unit was about the California Indians and I always began the year by teaching report writing. For fourth graders in 1970 that meant introducing them to 3×5 note cards (which they loved). We’d work together at first, learning to find the topic sentence in a paragraph and make a note by writing down the “important” words or phrases without copying a whole sentence. After practicing as a group they were on their own to finish the rest of the chapters in the unit.
When they each had a reasonable stack of cards, we worked on turning their notes into an outline. Believe me, it was slow going, and the reports they turned in just before Thanksgiving sounded pretty much all the same – but I’m sure many of their parents still have those construction paper report folders with carefully handwritten pages held together by three little brass brads. (At least I still have two of them that I’ve shown my grandchildren who are now goggling information about the same California Indians.)
The image that started me thinking in this direction, though, was that of small groups of 9-year-olds sitting on the grass outside the classroom, quietly chatting, and looking a bit like the pictures of Indian women in our book patiently grinding acorns into meal with their matates or weaving baskets from the reeds growing along the desert streams.
So … what does that have to do with teaching appreciation, or bringing back shop or music classes? (That’s why I call this blog “Meanderings” … stick with me here if you can . . .)
Every year we 4th grade teachers would go to the local craft store and buy small pre-drilled wooden bases and large skeins of reed that the kids would soak in buckets of water so they could weave “Indian” baskets for their parents for Christmas. Since their reports were always due by Thanksgiving, and we started practicing for the Christmas program in early December, the baskets gave us a bit of downtime during what every teacher knows to be one of the most hectic times of the year.
So back to the Indian baskets and the amazing, pastoral scene of little kids, quietly chatting while weaving their baskets. We’re they considering the intricate beauty of the Chumash baskets we had seen at the Natural History Museum on the last field trip? We’re they expressing amazement at the infinite patience those ancient women must have had to create baskets that could actually hold water as well as to separate the chaff from the seeds – like they had read about in the book and taken notes on their little cards? I highly doubt it!
All of that said, however, I now know, with 20/20 hindsite … that their brains were quite busy those days learning something far more important than the date that Father Serra arrived and transported those native Americans to the Mission village to make adobe bricks. We hear a lot these days about “time-on-task” – which in some cases has even meant cutting recess so that kids could spend more time at their desks memorizing facts or pushing pencils. “Downtime” is a term that very few teachers would feel comfortable saying when asked what a group of kids might be doing.
The technical word, however, for downtime is consolidation and it’s when the brain is transferring information from short-term memory to long-term. In other words, it’s when real learning takes place. It’s true that the human brain is learning all the time – but the other thing that is true is that the most important learning is done when it doesn’t necessarily look like it’s learning.
So back to the question. How DO we teach Appreciation? I suppose the best answer to that is to learn to appreciate how kids really learn – and take another look at what’s important for them to learn. To this day I believe that my fourth graders have a deeper appreciation for Native American culture because of those little baskets. It might have looked to an outside observer as though that was “time-off-task,” but it’s important to remember that we need to give their brains time to process new information in order to consolidate it with what they already know.
So, will that improve test scores? Well, I guess that depends upon the test. If our goal is to get them to spit back the information we have drilled them on for a couple of weeks so that they can correctly fill in the bubbles on a machine-scored test card … I suppose it won’t. But if we really want them to appreciate the life they are given – other cultures – the value of hard work and perseverance – music – art …. and I could go on and on … then we must take the focus off test scores and get down to the business of preparing kids for what comes after “School.”
PS … I didn’t even mention the value of an activity that requires the use of the small muscles needed for legible handwriting … but, of course, that’s an entirely different subject.