This is a post of several mini-posts about education, words in a classroom, and the sounds of words in a classroom.
I spent some time yesterday morning visiting one of my wife’s classrooms. She is a special reading teacher and goes to several schools every day. This class was for students who are very bright but for various reasons have difficulty functioning in a traditional classroom.
My wife had said this was a very special classroom. The teacher was one of the best she had ever seen. My wife introduced me to the teacher, the students, and the aides who were in the class. Then she went off to work with a student in a corner of the room, and I sat down nearby on the other side of a partition, to watch the class at work.
The first and most striking impression was the sound, the sound of education. I heard words being spoken quietly in various parts of the room. An aide was working with a small group, my wife was working with one student, and the teacher was working quietly at a terminal.
Soon after I arrived someone came in with a potential new student. The student was introduced to the class with a minimum of fuss, and the education continued without interruption.
A few minutes later I saw an aide working quietly at a table across the room, probably preparing for the next part of the day. A few minutes I saw her at work at the board, putting up some magnetic markers next to a list of the student’s names. (My wife said later this was used to reward good behavior).
Shortly thereafter a woman came into the room and introduced herself. Turns out she is one of the speech language pathologists who, like my wife, travels from school to school. She said this was a truly remarkable class, in that the teacher was able to maintain such order with a group of students who were believed to have great problems working in a group setting.
Watching the people come and go, the work being done, all the time hearing the quiet sounds of voices as the education proceeded, was like a form of carefully choreagraphed ballet. Every movement and every sound had a purpose.
And hearing all this brought home that while open-source may be a big help in improving education, it will do so not by replacing traditional forms of education, but I expect by freeing up resources so teachers and professors can deploy their valuable talents where it really counts, working and talking with students.
During this time I leafed through a few of the books that were carefully arranged nearby, grouped by author. I thought of spending a few minutes with my old friend Ramona Quimby, but instead glanced through a book by Jean George. I picked her because I know she happens to live in the same town I do, Chappaqua. The book had a forward by Robert Kennedy, Jr., recounting how he had learned to raise and train falcons as a young boy in part because of this book, and continued to work with birds to this day. This was a valuable reminder of the power of children’s literature.
I then spent a few minutes reading a book by Andrew Clements with illustrations by Brian Selznick, Frindle. It is about a boy named Nick Allen and his experiences in the fifth grade. Chapter Two, “Mrs. Granger,” begins as follows:
Fifth grade was different. That was the year to get ready for middle school. Fifth grade meant pasing classes. It meant no more morning recesse. It mean real letter grades on your report cars. But most of all, it meant Mrs. Granger.
There were about 150 kid in fifth grade. And there were seven fifth-grade teachers: two math, two science, two social studies, but only one language arts teacher. In language arts, Mrs. Granger had a monopoly — and a reputation.
I was hooked — what wonderful writing. Don’t we all remember a teacher like that?
I showed the book to the speech teacher. She said it was really great and that I should read it through to the end. So I took it with me and finished it last night.
“Frindle” is a made-up word that stands for “pen.” Hence the title of this post, “o-frindle education” for “o-pen education,” or “open education.”  To learn why it was made up and what happend when it was you will have to get a copy of the book for yourself.
Writing this reminded me of the recent story of Matthew LaClair and his experiences with the words utters in a high-school class in Kearny, NJ, taught by David Paszkiewicz, as reported in numerour stories, including Talk in Class Turns to God, Setting Off Public Debate on Rights.
It appears the teacher has strong religious views, and may have crossed the line in some statements in his class. Mr. LaClair, the student, had some concerns, and taped some of the classes to make sure he had an accurate record.
I write this not to take sides. This is clearly the kind of story that raises strong emotions, and in these days of the blogosphere and the 24-hour news cycle emotions may well grow stronger soon. Indeed, the Times story reports there have even been death threats against Mr. LaClair.
I write this to applaud Mr. LaClair. The article mentions Mr. LaClair was raised in the Ethical Culture Society, a group I have mentioned in earlier post. But I’m not writing because of this but because back when I was in high school I had a similar experience.
While schools function best when all one can hear is the quiet sound of words in a classroom as teachers educate their students, schools also have great authority, and any authority, even one entrusted to school administrators, can be abused.
I came across this in my senior year in high school. I was one of about ten students in a special, “advanced” course in Western Civilization. The teacher told us he would be teaching the course at the college level as though it were a seminar, to help get us ready for working in college. The first few lectures were fine.
And then we had our first text. It was a short quiz, in multiple-choice format. But the questions were ludicrous, at the sixth-grade level. Some of us, including myself, took offense, and responded with what we thought we equally ludicrous answers, and added some comments about the test.
The teacher blew up. He accused us on not respecting him, not doing the work, and so forth. To be fair, perhaps we did cross a line ourselves, but then he really crossed the line.
He said that he was so disgusted by our behavior that he was going to write letters to all the colleges to which we had applied, saying we were unfit to attend college.
And if I had been the only student singled so out I might not have gotten into Caltech. But I was lucky. Though my mother was but a secretary, the other students in the class had parents much more powerful than mine. For example, one father was the chairman of the English Department at the University of New Mexico, two fathers were very prominent local attorneys, and another was a physician with an international reputation. (I learned all this only after they became involved to help us.)
Things did quiet down. No letters were sent, and we even managed to struggle to the end of the semester, though I can’t say any education was accomplished during that time.
And that’s why I wanted to mention Mr. LaClair, and to honor him. Because what he did took guts. It was not an easy thing for him, or his parents, to do. We all should all admire them for standing up for what they think important — applying the words Mr. LaClair heard spoken earlier in other classrooms — especially in a situation that can be subject to the whims of an arbitrary process.
1. Puns are allowed in the fifth grade, Mrs. Granger notwithstanding.