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Wednesday, December 8,2010

Public ed in the 21st century

Old school chats with new school when discussing … schools

by Gretchen Cochran

Old met new on a recent Saturday in Lansing. Two educators, four decades apart in age, could barely contain their passion for the profession one is entering and the other has left behind.


School budgets are shrinking and the tools are changing, but still their fervor for lighting a fire of understanding in a young mind was contagious. They talked of inner city challenges confronted by school boards and trying to teach bored children who are bombarded with electronic stimulation.


Carol Steele was there with the book she wrote describing the tricks she wished she’d known 40 years ago when she first stepped into a Grand Rapids inner city public school classroom. “The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One, Be One,” is on display at Everybody Reads on Lansing’s east side.


Steele, 64, and a Grand Rapids resident (where she did most of her classroom teaching), was at the cozy independent bookstore to autograph her work.


A 20-year-old teacher-to-be pulled up a chair and the two launched into a conversation that covered the breadth of public education issues. But they come from different generations, the younger having grown up with electronic stimulation from her baby bed.


The more they talked, the faster their words came. Their zeal could have filled 10 classrooms.


Kelly Anderson, a junior in Michigan State University’s Global Educator Program, came to East Lansing from Connecticut three years ago to enroll in the program focusing on multicultural education. She spent last summer in China studying their education system.


She saw Chinese teachers engage in classroom clusters, where one teacher instructs kindergarten through fourth grade, allowing the children to grow in areas of interest rather than be slotted by age.


It’s foolish how we teach students based on their age, Anderson said of the U. S. education system. She noted Sir Ken Robinson’s treatise on how schools are killing creativity. Robinson is a British author specializing in education issues.


Today’s systems are based on an old industrial, assembly-line model, he says. Better would be an agrarian one.


“If a plant is a shade-lover, you’d plant it in the shade — not force it to thrive in the sun,” Anderson said.


It’s that assembly-line mentality that forces children into shapes like it would auto parts, Steele added. She told of a former student who became a “percussive dancer.” He’s making a living sprinkling corn meal on floors then making rhythmic sounds with his feet.


“School career planners today would say there’s no such thing. You can’t do that,” Steele said.


She, too, prefers the agrarian model. In fact, her book’s cover shows a seedling cupped in two hands. The book proposes growing robust teachers who would then cultivate prospering students.


Steele and Anderson are alike in other ways. They share the same brown hair color. A light sprinkle of freckles trips across both of their noses. Both wear blue jeans.


But the younger Anderson is intense, seeing issues in crisp definitions, while Steele is surprisingly more playful and experienced enough to embrace nuance.


Nationally certified, Steele has taught adults, Job Corps and public school students. She learned the ropes mostly by trial and error.


Her book is divided into 13 chapters, each describing a key teaching skill with stories to illustrate. They deal with skills like being “multi-dimensionally aware” and “knowing the subject matter.” Together they represent the wisdom Steele lacked on her first day in the classroom.


Anderson will have an advantage Steele did not. More student teachers today have opportunities in the classroom before they are on their own, benefiting them and the experienced teachers they work with while creating a co-teaching environment. The MSU education program requires one year of practice teaching. In fact, Steele mentors five such practice teachers in Grand Rapids for MSU.


Collaboration is critical to good teaching, yet collaborative teaching opportunities are shrinking. “Money and the lack thereof drives public education,” Steele said.




‘Checked out on trying’


Teaching is not a performance. It is an interaction, Steele said. Teachers breathe in information from their students and respond, but the skill is a learned one.


Anderson noted that teachers in China are required to observe and evaluate one another. When teachers are graded according to their students’ test scores, no one benefits.


“I’m a huge fan of teacher accountability but teaching to the test is harming us,” Anderson said.


Instead, Steele added, teachers could be graded on the 13 skills outlined in her book. Then they wouldn’t need to blame poor results on what urban district teachers and school boards call “disengaged parents.”


“People who say they can’t teach when parents are not involved have checked out on trying,” Steele proclaims. Frequently the issue is not that the parents don’t care, but that their caring looks different.


“People of poverty care but they don’t know what to do. They have street smarts but not much energy left over. They care, but it doesn’t look the same,” Steele said. “And their children are in a system where the poorer you are, the newer your teacher and the older your books.”


Anderson concurred. To make matters worse, the students are labeled in various ways, so that individually they become invisible.


But Anderson is not discouraged. She talks of the kindergarten classroom she hopes to outfit one day. It will have picture books from many cultures. No one culture will be singled out as an oddity because of its difference.


“Teaching is the profession that can have the most impact on the future of our country,” Anderson said.


The two also discussed the impact of technology on education. Some educators say the youngsters raised on Nintendo Wii and Blackberry phones don’t organize material in their brains the same way as those who weren’t.


“I’m one of those,” Anderson said. “Everything for us is more visual. We need a multi-layered power point presentation rather than just a lecture.”


But she fears the loss of kids actually holding books. Steele concurred in the sadness of such a future, noting the richness of vocabulary in children’s books. The average spoken word vocabulary is 1,000 words, compared to 5,000 words in children’s literature.


Time had long passed for Steele’s stint in the bookstore. The two educators rose to part ways. Schools can change the world. It’s what makes value even on a rough day, Anderson said.


Steele added: It’s underrated how gratifying teaching is.

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