A Very Nice Lesson

by Neill Wenger
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Photo courtesy of Steven C. Hall

In my years of visiting schools and classrooms that were trying various reform ideas, I would have to say most often teachers were strangled by the school system structure, clearly a systems level effect. Many were overwhelmed by the daily “grind” — bureaucratic and social demands made by the system. Reformers were often co-opted. Often, by the third “wave” of reform, the “new” reform ideas and techniques were swallowed by the structure of schooling and became only hollow names for what were once vibrant ideas. I was amazed how quickly it happened.

Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools idea of essential questions, however, closely fit my teaching experience. As a teacher, I would create a question or activity and let the kids determine its form. I don’t think as a teacher I would have the freedom to do this in a classroom anymore; the landscape in our local schools has changed that much.

One of the neatest experiences I had with this was when I was teaching 4- to 5-year-old LD students. I called it “Trade & Exchange.” I started this because “traditional” and even “modern” ways of teaching math weren’t working for these guys. One day my friend and I were traveling to an archeology project, and we started to talk about trade & exchange networks in the Pacific rim.

So, back in my room, I handed each kiddo a bag with “trade goods” like candy, trading cards, paper clips, and always money (pennies). I told them to look at what they had — if they liked it, they could keep it. If not, they could trade it. (I knew, of course, the grass is always greener, so it wasn’t long before there was active trading going on.) I set the rules and language for how the trades were made, and after that, my aide and I sat back most of the time and simply recorded what happened (a good move since that became the core data for my dissertation!). If there were “problems” with the trades, the group convened a council and solved the problem by final vote. They took all of this so seriously.

It was simply amazing to watch this, especially since at that time LD meant either major speech/language problems or hyperactivity/behavioral issues. That is, kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t talk, or kids literally climbing the walls. Amazingly, during the trading, you wouldn’t have observed many of these LD problems because, I think, these kids were fully engaged and had their “perceptors-on” full power. Attention spans magically stretched. Math skills emerged. Some quite sophisticated sentences also emerged from the reticent. And—this truly gives me hope for mankind—an egalitarian social structure emerged and the group was quick to protect each other from unfair trades.

Not surprisingly, their development of Trade & Exchange mirrored the anthropological literature in many ways and forever changed my perceptions of social and cultural evolution.

For me, the hardest part, the biggest stressor, of homeschooling is trying to navigate between what I know the boys need and what the state thinks I should be doing. Many homeschooling parents I meet don’t have a “big picture” so they often end up just mirroring a common school curriculum at home or, at the other extreme, doing a mish-mash of “hands-on” things and calling it “different”, thinking because it’s “different” it must be “better” than what’s happening in a school. Neither works for me.

First off, I think homeschooling parents need a “quest” to organize their “essential questions”—from which all else follows. For us here, all flows from the questions of Earth and “Gaia” (again, systems theory and ecology) and the discipline of the scientific method.

And I tend to be, ah, “persistent” (read “stubborn”), so I live with this grating stress which is essentially the same as I felt as a classroom teacher—do I teach what I know in my heart the kids need now or what the state says they need, which, often, is nowhere near what they’re engaged with or in need of at this moment. At every moment I do know, however, what the “official” curriculum says a student should know; and if I can find a way to get there from here, I’ll connect it to what we’re doing. But, as the final decision each day about what to do or not to do, I still opt for observing a full “perceptors-on” response as my criteria for decision-making.

Math has been my biggest curriculum problem—until today. We do math work, but it often feels disconnected from anything the boys are doing at the moment. That changed today. Alex, my oldest, came over to me this morning with his “data” from a germination experiment he had been doing. He started reading off the percentages of germination for different atriplex species and telling me what it looked like was going on with the germination. I realized at that moment he was really ready to create a data table, test his ideas—and we’re off to the statistical races!

The thing is, I’ve done these types of activities before, but today he was ready, “perceptors-on” full, because he intends to send the data to the USDA substation from which he got the seeds.

I’m especially intrigued by your writings on Socratic method and learning, where you write that “one can teach or tutor effectively even in subjects he knows nothing about.” I need that. I’m at that point. Alex’s plant-breeding work, for example, is beyond my skill set. He is, however, “in the network”, and will just hop on the phone and talk to some amazing people. The one thing I’ve always stressed to him is: before he asks to take of someone’s time, he needs to be as prepared as is humanly possible. So these people love teaching him, not only because he’s young but because he knows his stuff before he calls.

Neill Wenger [no relation] is a former teacher, currently homeschooling two boys and farming.

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