Schools and Prisons and Crap ‘n Stuff

Okay, so now I’m finally going to write this thing. Every day more crap happens in the classrooms that I’m teaching in that it just shows me that I’m right. Seventeen years of teaching in schools and seeing this crap every day and wanting to yell to the world that this all just isn’t right. It doesn’t work! It just doesn’t work! I have to write it now, or yell it somewhere, or something!
I shouldn’t call it crap really, it’s just behaviour. Human behaviour. It’s just how people are for chrissake. Sitting for hours, supposed to be doing something they don’t really want to be doing. Sounds like a prison. Yeah, maybe that’s it – schools and prisons. Schools, the way they are now, not much different from prisons. You have a lot of people kept inside a building and most of them don’t want to be there at all. And most of them, most of the time that they’re in these buildings, are being forced to do stuff that they don’t really want to be doing. They get little breaks now and then, sometimes they even get to go outside and get a little fresh air and exercise, but most of the time they’re kept in the buildings by some sort of official people who are supposedly doing things that are good for the people who are being kept.
Yeah, okay, maybe there’s a difference between people who are called criminals, who have done some crime against the society and the society is punishing them by keeping them away from the society, and then a whole different type of society starts up in the prison, a difference between them and children who are kept in schools by the society that’s trying to make them into good members of the society. But when you think about it really, the biggest difference is that the kids get to go home at the end of the day, or at least go somewhere else, and the criminals can’t. That’s about it for differences when you really think about it. And there’s a whole new type of society that develops in schools too, and it’s not like the society that’s outside the school either. Still, the criminals want to be doing something different from what they’re doing and the kids want to be doing something different from what they’re doing. I’ve seen it for years now, starting with when I was in Oakland doing practice teaching for my first teaching credential, me getting all excited about some lesson plan that I’ve come up with, thinking the kids are really gonna like it and get inspired too, and do this lesson and want to do a lot more and maybe even want to study this kind of thing for their profession. But that hardly ever has happened because the kids are usually really just thinking about their bodies and about the kid sitting next to them or in some other room or how crappy it was at home last night, and there really aren’t any kids in the room who really want to be there and do what I tell them I think they ought to do, and I know it’s like that in all schools. Unless of course a kid comes onto something in the school that she or he really likes and suddenly really does want to be there and do more of that thing whatever it is. Then that’s a difference – that a kid can do a thing that he or she really likes but a criminal can’t, although there are a lot of those Bird Man of Alcatraz stories about the people in prisons who can get the books they need or can work with some tools or something and learn stuff that they’d really like to learn. But this is all kind of off the track, or getting ahead of myself, or whatever the good, real literary academic writers would probably say.

Yeah, so anyway, now I’m finally going to write this thing and I’m not really going to take all that time to look up a lot of reference stuff to help prove that I’m right, or to do quotes and excerpts and citations and all that type of stuff, because it just feels like I’m right and I’ve read enough stuff that supports what I see and feel and have experienced face-to-face and if most educators think about what I’m saying they’ll have to admit somewhere inside them that they know I’m right too, even though they won’t say it or write it anywhere. I mean, it’s not like I’m just making this up, like Dave Barry might say, I’m not making this up without having some kind of knowledge and training and experience and some instincts that have developed and I think I need to quote a lot of other people. I’ve been to four years of college for the B.A. experience, and then I went to that fifth year in California to get a secondary teaching credential, doing a semester of practice teaching in junior highs in Oakland, and then after working at my own business for sixteen years going to that sixth year at a university to get the masters degree in education and now I’ve been a teacher for seventeen years in schools, and that’s not to mention the people I’ve taught to do woodworking in the business that I had, or the people I’ve given drum lessons to or guitar lessons to. So it’s not like I’m just somebody who had a bad time in school and wants to write some bad stuff about school to get some sort of revenge or to make schools look bad or something. I’ve really been in there and seen how it is and tried to do the job in a good way and started out all inspired and everything, even lost my enthusiasm a couple of times and got it back again and tried again to really help young people get inspired to learn stuff.
But that’s the thing see – trying to inspire a lot of people – kids, young people – to learn stuff that they don’t want to learn or don’t know if they want to learn it, or don’t see any reason why they should learn it – it’s like having them in a prison to do what somebody else is telling them they should do, or have to do, and they don’t have a clue about it because they’re too young to have had any experiences yet that they can base any wants on, and the only place they’ve ever been to do stuff is the school, all they know how to do is sit in school, so that’s their only experience and it’s not like the outside society that everybody else is in anyway, so why should they want to do it at all?

What I’ve learned in teaching in these crazy situations is that, and it was after about nine years of “teaching” that I really understood that this is what was happening – People learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it.

Think about it. Think about what you’ve really learned and how you learned it and how you were feeling when you learned it. I mean school kinds of stuff, not like when you learned that if you fall off your bike you’ll probably hurt a knee or something. And think about all those discussions in school decision-making groups about how to solve the problem of kids forgetting so much stuff over summer breaks. If the kids had really learned the stuff because they wanted to learn it and were interested in learning it for their own reasons, they wouldn’t have forgotten it during just one summer for chrissake. Kids are just sitting there, numbly doing what they think will keep the smallest number of people from being unhappy with them. Even the ones who do well on tests and stuff forget most of what was on the test after a couple of weeks. There’s a lot of research and statistics on that, I know, I’ve read it, and you can too, with a couple of clicks on some internet search engine.

I mean, where did the idea ever come from that people learn best by going somewhere and listening to someone tell them stuff and have them do stuff that that other person and probably some group has decided should be told and done? When and why was it taken away from the individual to decide what they want to learn and when and how? Somebody told me about William James at the end of the 1800’s, when the industrial revolution was starting up and people needed a good baby-sitting child-care kind of service, because they all wanted to go work in factories now instead of stay home with the family on the farm, that that’s when the idea of schools started. Must be information about that somewhere. Anyway, as it is now, teachers prepare lessons, worry about complying with the school’s course plan, the county’s course plan, the state’s course plan, the country’s course plan …. What about the student’s plan? Students don’t even have a plan! They don’t get to have one, they’re not expected to have one, they’ve never thought about having one or thought that they even could have one. They’re just expected to numbly follow the tradition, wherever and whenever that was started, of walking slowly and unenthusiastically into the school every day and trying to do what all those other people have planned. And that’s just crap. That really and truly is crap. It should all start with the student, if you really think about it. It just has to be seen that when a student becomes personally inspired to do something, she or he finds a way to do it, and then does it in a fraction of the time that it would be done if they were sitting in school listening to somebody else talk about it before he or she had any real interest in hearing about it. Schools should just “be there” for when that time comes that a student wants to learn something, and then everyone who is involved will be doing what they want to do, not just numbly sitting and waiting for the person and the groups to say what they should do.

I noticed pretty early, earlier than those first nine years, yeah, I think when I was doing practice teaching, that what goes on in school, with most age groups, is more about controlling the kids’ behaviour than it is about teaching them anything, or as I would rather think of it, helping them to learn anything. I have often thought, maybe with my tongue in my cheek or whatever the good writers would say, that a few courses in police work should be included in teacher education programs in colleges and universities, because controlling behaviour and making rules about behaviour and trying to get kids to follow them is what fills a big, I mean huge, percentage of time spent in schools that should be used for people – usually kids – leaning what they want to learn. Just two days before I am writing this now, I was in the corridor outside my classroom helping a group of twelve-year-olds put together a play, and I was having the first success of the school year with a kid who usually was yelling and running too much to be involved in any “lesson”, and another teacher started yelling at us from the end of the hallway that the kid should take off his hat, that he wasn’t supposed to have his hat on inside the building, and she wouldn’t stop yelling, disrupted my whole piece of work and what looked like it was going to be real inspiration for the kid, who probably has some ADHD diagnosis or something which just means he hasn’t found what he’s interested in yet, and I thought suddenly he was going to really be interested in working on writing this play, and the whole thing got blown up by some school rule about hats. Stupid!!! The kid felt defensive, and I felt like I should probably feel bad for not following school rules and making the kid take off his hat. I hadn’t even noticed that he had a hat on, the thing with him finally wanting to be involved in something that our class was doing was being so much fun. See?!!? The rules get in the way of and even take precedence over the learning and what could develop into the fun of learning, so we might as well be trained as law enforcement people as being trained as teachers. If the kid really was allowed to follow his own interests and me follow my teaching instincts and the school was really interested in helping with all of that, it wouldn’t matter what the kid was wearing, the learning activity would be intense enough that it just wouldn’t matter what the kid is wearing for chrissake! So anyway, I noticed pretty early that there was all this rule enforcement going on in schools rather than learning that was going on in schools, and then a lot of years later, I started to see the parallels to what goes on in prisons. And come to think of it, when I think of how I think schools really should be, and I’ll get to that later, as the good writers would say, prisons actually get it closer to right, because when a criminal in a prison wants to learn something, the prison group of deciders usually gets the materials that are needed and then makes time available for the learning to happen.

And yeah, that’s really how schools should work. I just now thought of that. Not that that’s how schools should work – I thought of that a long time ago, and so I guess here I am already at that “later” that I said I would get to, that schools should be set up with books and rooms and tools and tables and computers and teachers who should just be experienced people in the subjects that are available and then students could go in there when they wanted to learn something and they would learn it in a fraction of the time that it would take if they were sitting in some school being forced to try to learn it when they didn’t have any personal reason to be trying to learn it. The kids shouldn’t even have to be in the school until they have something or some things that they wanted to learn. I thought of that a long time ago, and then I read Summerhill by A.S.Neill and I saw that he agreed with me and his school shows that it’s all true, and right, and creates way less stress, maybe even zero stress, when the student actually wants to learn what there is to be learned.

So now I’ve made a reference and that’s to Summerhill and later, I’ll probably write about some things that Howard Gardner has written about, and then there’s some stuff that Lyall Watson has done. But for the most part, just know as a reader that you can find the sort of stuff that you think I should be writing in here, if you think I should be quoting a lot of other people and books and articles and stuff, you can find that stuff yourself with the internet and then you can experience, because if you’re stuck in this sort of thing you probably haven’t yet in your life experienced it, what I say to the kids that are in the classrooms that I am in, that you are your own best teacher because you can decide yourself what you want to read or do or learn and how interested in it you’re going to be and then when you take your own time to look up some information or to ask somebody for instructions then you’ll really remember it, learn it, instead of just sitting and waiting for somebody to tell you what to look up and where and how to write it down or how to try to remember it so you do that for a while to get the other person to shut up and leave you alone and then you just forget everything that you’ve done.

Homework? Do we have any homework? The kids always ask Do we have any homework? Do you know what I say to them? Yeah, YOU ALWAYS HAVE HOMEWORK, you would have homework all the time if you were really interested in learning something, you should want to have homework, you should make up your own homework for chrissake, you should be doing it whether or not somebody has given you an assignment to do it because you love learning the stuff but you don’t do that or feel that way because nobody has ever and this society has never given you the chance to decide for yourself that you can do something and learn something that you yourself are excited to learn. If students were learning things when they had decided that they wanted to learn them, homework wouldn’t even be an issue in schools. The only issue might be that teachers would be overburdened with homework, looking through all the work that the students were doing out of burning interest! If you really want to learn something, you’re helping yourself learn it every chance you get. You wouldn’t just sit in a classroom waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Aaahh, but, the society says, children need someone to inspire them, they need the structure of the classroom, they would just play if they didn’t have a teacher telling them and showing them what to do and how to do it. Yes, says Neill and Summerhill School, they will play, and play, and play some more, and exercise imaginations and learn to direct and manage energies, and play, and play and play some more, until they are inspired, yeah maybe by someone else, maybe by a bug they see in the grass, and when they get that inspiration that is really their own idea, it will become difficult to stop them from doing all the learning that they can possibly do.

Imagine if you were a kid in a ghetto and you knew that there was a building a few blocks away that had a lot of stuff in it that you could use to learn new things and you could go there whenever you wanted and work or play with the stuff that was there and ask some people there how to use the stuff in the ways that you were interested in learning about, rather than knowing that there’s a building a few blocks away where the law says you should be and the police are going to try to make you go there, and then when you’re there, you just listen to people talk about stuff that you’ve never even heard of before. Maybe you can be inspired by that, in your imagination, but maybe you are thinking more about what happened at home last night and you’d rather be talking with somebody about that and then maybe about how to learn to do some different kinds of things. But you can’t do what you’re really feeling you want to do, because the society has a tradition of what schools do. And that stuff that somebody was forcing you to listen to that you’d never even heard of before just sounds like stuff you’ve never heard of before because somebody is saying that you have to listen to it, whereas if you were listening to it because you were curious about it and you came to this building because you were curious about it and the society had always had the attitude that when somebody is curious about something then they get to go to such a building and find out more about what they’re curious about, then it would sound like some exciting stuff that you’ve never heard of before and it would be really exciting to be hearing about it and thinking about it and being inspired by it, rather than just something dumb that you’ve never heard of before and people are making you listen to somebody talk about it. That building kind of sounds like a library, doesn’t it. What if there were just libraries, with some workshops and art studios and music studios and film studios and whatever shops and studios and kitchens and stuff, and some teachers and experienced people hanging around to answer questions and make suggestions? Yeah, schools should be a lot like libraries — places where you can go when you want to and decide for yourself that you want to be there and what you want to learn and when and you really, actually and for the rest of your life, learn it!

How it should be really, you know, is that teachers are like employees of the students. The students should come into the school or maybe just have a way to contact a teacher, and tell the teacher what she or he wants to learn and then, only then, not until then, does the teacher start making some suggestions that could lead the learner into the information or the skills that that learner wants to get to, helping the learner find his or her own way, not pushing them into some way that they aren’t personally curious about already. That reminds me of when I was growing up on a hog farm and the day would come when it was time to sell some of the hogs, and a big truck would come to the farm and a chute or ramp was set up for the hogs to walk up into the truck, fence rails on each side, a chute is a ramp with fence rails on each side, and the hogs were supposed to walk up the ramp/chute into the back of the truck, and the hogs would start curiously walking their way up the ramp and then the men who were involved in the whole selling and trucking operation would start yelling and whistling and banging their hands against the fence rails and even prodding the hogs with electrical shock-producing prods, and so rather than being allowed to follow their natural curiosity and walk up the ramp and see what’s in the truck and thereby solving easily all the problems of the situation all by themselves, the hogs became terrified by what was happening to them in the chute and would try with all their might to get back down and out of that chute and back to the safety of their quiet little hog lot and the whole event was far, far more stressful than it would ever have been if the hogs had simply been allowed to follow their own curiosity. I hope I don’t have to explain why I just thought of that as I think about schools and children and natural curiosity and providing for its development and not filling the so-called learning environment with abnormal amounts of rules and restrictions and mind-numbing fence rails and random ramps and decision-making groups. And if the learner has trouble learning the stuff that she or he finds and has told his or her employee — the teacher — to help with, then she or he can say that to the teacher and the teacher can be prepared to recognize a learning difficulty, or a special gift or talent, and be prepared to make some new suggestions or to help the learner to meet someone who can work with that type of learning difficulty.

Okay, so today I had a talk with a parent who is pretty worried about his twelve-year-old daughter because she isn’t very good at doing the homework for our English class and she doesn’t like English or any other language work for that matter and he’s pretty worried that she has to learn that stuff during her twelve years in school and it looks like she might not get it done. So I told him about how schools make us all feel that way and go into a sort of panic if we or our kids are not doing so well in school, when the way it really should be is that we all in a society should recognize that people will learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it, and that the subjects that are emphasized in schools may not be the best anyway for each student. This all has to do with the brilliance of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences idea, and how I’ve known that that was true since maybe sometime in the 1970’s, and just didn’t know what it was until I read a couple of Gardner’s books during the 1990’s, and wow, was I excited to read that stuff because I knew that it was true, that Gardner found a way to really describe what is really going on with people and how we all learn, and you can read those books too if you really want to know why I’m excited about it. I told the parent about my own experience with algebra, where I thought I was really stupid in school because I couldn’t understand algebra at all and my teacher and my friends thought I was really stupid and would fail at my whole life and so I got through school and then six years of college and was working at my own business when one day, I saw an algebra book at a flea market and picked it up and opened it randomly and everything looked beautiful and made a beautiful sort of sense to me and I bought the book and took it home and read the whole thing in about a week and understood the whole thing. I never really had any need for algebra, but I thought it was a beautiful sort of logic at work there and really enjoyed thinking through that book. And I could easily imagine that parent’s daughter, who has a distinct ability with physical objects and spatial relations, one day wanting to be an architect and discovering that, since she lives in Europe and has a language other than English as her home language, her work would benefit if she could do well with the English language, and then she would get an English book or find an English teacher and probably learn, in about six months, all the English that she was supposed to have learned in eight or so years of school when people were trying to force her to learn it and she really had no feeling for it at all.

I also told this parent about how I, who have been teaching English for four years in a European country that doesn’t have English as the home language, have asked all the students that I have had during those four years who have shown an exceptional level of ability with English, how they have learned so much English, and the answer that I never get is one that has to do with school, and the answer that I most often get has to do with computer games, and the answer that I get next most often has to do with films and television and music. And that all just proves that people learn best when they have a personal interest in learning the stuff, whatever it is, rather than when somebody else is trying to force them to learn it because some group of educators has said that it should be done.

The next topic that I want to write about in here, and don’t think that I won’t get back to what I have been writing about and all, and especially about Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, is that the discomfort and uneasiness and embarassment and hypocrisy that I feel as a teacher come from, I realised a couple of years ago, the daily experience that teachers have — that they are not usually, are hardly ever, respected for what they know or for what they can do, or because they want to help people learn stuff, but are just in a position that gives them some sort of position over others, and that most kids in schools just see that as a position of authority that they have to try to outwit, or to circumvent, or show to be at fault or to be inept, or to make fun of, or to find a weakness in. Sounds a lot like the relationship that prisoners have towards their guards, doesn’t it? It’s all because the kids are forced to be there with those teachers standing in front of them telling them what to do and how, and what to think and in what order and what the best use of their time is and what the school rules are and on, and on, and on, and on…. Just like prisoners and their guards. The kids haven’t chosen the teachers, and they haven’t chosen to be in school, and they have other things on their minds most of the time that they’re in school, and when they’re sitting in school doing “what they should be doing”, their faces always look like they have taken some sort of sleep-inducing drug or something, so when they get an idea of how to trick the teacher in some way, or to tell the teacher something that isn’t right so that the teacher will give them some sort of relief from the dullness of not being able to think for themselves, yeah, the kid gets pretty lively when he or she thinks of something like that, and when the other kids catch on, they start getting lively too, and then suddenly the teacher has a lot to deal with in the way of discipline and trying to control behavior rather than teaching in the way that the school and society says they should be doing, and controlling behavior wasn’t what the teacher had in mind when they signed up for the college classes that would teach them how to be a teacher and there weren’t any classes in behavior control at the university but the teacher soon finds out that they have to spend more time thinking about that than about how to teach the subject that they want to teach, all because nobody in the room really wants to learn it, at least not yet. They might want to learn it later, and that’s when, dammit, schools should provide the setting and the materials and the teacher and that’s when the lessons should start and not before. That’s how schools really should be, as I’ve been saying — that when somebody really decides that they want to learn something, they find the school and the school has the teachers and the stuff that’s probably needed and then the learning begins, with a fraction of the time and energy and stuff used, because everybody who is there and doing stuff really wants to be there doing the stuff.

Yeah so I should like to say again, that the whole point here, the final thing, the bottom line, the whatever the good literary writers would say, is that schools, as they are now, with the idea that people should have to learn stuff before they have their own idea that they want to learn it, is a colossal waste of time. And energy and resources.

Think about it readers. I mean, really try to feel it. “When was the last time you really learned something?” was how it was asked on a recent (October, 2010) radio program from Stockholm, Sweden. It’s been interesting, you know … since I’ve started writing this blog, after wanting for about forty years to write a book about all of this stuff, since I’ve actually started writing it, a whole bunch of stuff has turned up in just my daily life that supports what I’ve been thinking and wanting to write because I know it’s the truth. That radio program from Stockholm with a guy who wrote a book called Lust for Learning or something like that, and several people talking about learning and they’re agreeing that they haven’t learned anything, really, except when they really wanted to learn it for some personal reason of their own. The newspaper article that I just happened to read about, by Jay Mathews in the Washington Post from March of 2008, “High Schools should let dropouts be dropouts.” Yeah, because it’s just a waste of a lot of people’s time and energy and the society’s resources to have people in school who don’t want to be there. So really try to feel it, readers. When have you really learned something?

To be continued ….

About wkhardy

A long-time teacher, woodworker and musician who is now writing some ideas that have incubated for forty years -- ideas about WHAT SCHOOLS REALLY SHOULD BE!!!! And now, November of 2015, I'm posting poems and song lyrics from my book -- Once There Came A Thought.
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1 Response to Schools and Prisons and Crap ‘n Stuff

  1. Nice blog Will!
    Man kan verkligen se frustrationen och ilskan bakom dina ord men också inspirationen och viljan att göra något annorlunda och riktigt bra! Ser fram emot att läsa mer 🙂

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