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What Are Teachers Trying to Say?

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Message Eva van Loon

There is no public schooling happening in British Columbia at present. Half a million children are not getting access to the education to which they are entitled. The excruciating strike continues slogging through its fourth month, the government focused on money and breaking the union, the teachers on the elephant in the room. It's the same elephant school districts throughout North America are struggling to control.

Sixty years ago I started Grade One. Like all my classmates, I'd been home for my first six years. Many were sons and daughters of British descent; perhaps half of us were European refugees from WWII (referred to as "dirty DPs"--Displaced Persons). A handful of us in that class of about 30 six-year-olds, none of whom had seen the inside of a kindergarten or daycare, were hard to categorize--only decades later did I realize they were Metis or First Nations kids.

Within weeks we were "streamed" into three reading groups, the Chipmunks, the Squirrels and the Rabbits. We understood these monikers matched the teacher's opinion of our "reading readiness." I was in with the British types, the Chipmunks. The kids who barely spoke English were Squirrels. The Metis kids and the odd developmentally challenged individual were Rabbits.

Chipmunks became fluent readers within weeks. Squirrels filled out the belly of the bell curve. The Rabbits hopped around listlessly on their side of the classroom, doomed losers from the start.

You could not pull this stunt in any classroom today. To our new eyes, it's neither fair nor respectful of differences. Rightly so.

I cite this history to point out that streaming, or homogeneous grouping, worked well for many students six decades ago. The teaching systems inherited from Britain fulfilled the expectations of most parents and allowed most kids to succeed. The students failed by this system were often those not born into English culture or something like it--European, or what we sometimes call "Western" civilization.

Today our teachers are trying to tell us that this inherited system doesn't work anymore, because kids aren't much like those of half a century ago.

Throw any thirty kids into one room today and you will discover a wild farrago of ethnic, social, racial, linguistic and historical backgrounds. You could not divide this group into Chipmunks, Squirrels and Rabbits without going bald, pulling out your hair trying to sort out the many variations of today's youth.

The phenomenon of "special needs" has meanwhile ballooned. When I became a teacher in 1974, that new field was viewed as a temporary anomaly. Young, enthusiastic teachers were thrown into a Special Ed room with 28 kids, near the back of the school or in a "portable", and advised that everything would be fine as long as there was no noise emanating from our palace of learning. In a single such room, one might encounter deafness, palsy, mental retardation, hunger, starvation, abuse, fetal-alcohol syndrome, substance abuse, addiction, malnutrition, Tourette's, attention problems, cognitive dysfunction, illiteracy, innumeracy and, sometimes, simply a vast ignorance of how the world physically works (I revived the fine old word nescience to describe that last one).

Live through that! Small wonder SPED teachers burned out within a few seasons.

It's hard to realize how a forest is changing while living inside it. However, returning to the educational jungle in 2001 after a twenty-year absence helped me realize how much has changed since the Sixties, aside from demographics. Not in the school system, mind you, where so little has changed, but in the school populations.

(1) Many toddlers and young children now are cared for by non-parental adults in daycare, preschool and kindergarten, while their parents work. There are, of course, no grandparents in the parental home, either. Regardless of how professional and caring the non-parental adults may be, they are not the child's family of origin. We have never examined how that difference may affect children's functional learning both early in life and later.

(2) Only now are we beginning to see that taking First Nations children out of their homes to try to accustom them to "Western civilization" by means of residential school was a sociological and cultural catastrophe with multi-generational negative effects. Yet we fail to notice any parallel with children farmed out in the tender years to foster care or non-parental care.

(3) No distinction has ever been made in public education between functional learning (the stuff that must become second nature) and content learning. Before and during my childhood, schools did not need to do functional learning because many children came to school prepared for content learning at relatively homogeneous levels and it was assumed that children who did not fit into those levels were short a few bricks of a full load, as the saying goes. Irrespective of the gross unfairness of these assumptions, the system appeared to work for the majority of children who mattered to so called Western civilization. It could be argued that the politics of colonization failed to supply a real education to the colonized except for extremely determined individuals.

(4) There has also never been a realization that functional learning generally happens most effectively on a one-to-one basis, while content learning can happen with a homogeneous group of virtually any size (dependent on methodology and subject matter, for example).

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Writer, editor, publisher, and cognition therapist perches precariously on the west coast keeping body and soul together for the next generation and one wolfdog. That, and the pleasure of living...and travel...and chocolate...and good books.
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What Are Teachers Trying to Say?

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