Monday, August 8

Operating In Educational Boxes

When I was in seventh grade, I stumbled onto something. I discovered that I love to read. It was an accident, like many discoveries in life, but nonetheless, it was one of the longest lasting and most impactful lessons I ever learned. I’ll never forget the circumstances either.

I remember spending a significant amount of time in the library looking for a book because my reading teacher, Richard Pyle, told everyone in the class that they could pick any book they wanted. Any book at all. Then, he asked us to read the book while we were in class and write a book report. I was a bright kid (or so I thought at the time) and set out to find the book that meant the most to me -- the one with the fewest pages so I could complete the task at hand, earn my A, and twiddle my thumbs or draw pictures on my notepad for the rest of the semester.

There was another reason I wanted a short book. I was afraid. In third grade, my grandmother held me back because she noticed that I seemed to be falling behind on my reading skills. In order to correct the problem, she pulled me from the Milwaukee public school system and enrolled me in a Catholic school, Holy Redeemer. It seems she decided that a stricter school would be better for me.

Their solution was simple and it seemed to work. Talkative children, which is how the public school system labeled me on early report cards, were always seated in the front of the class at Holy Redeemer. A firm hand can change even the most undisciplined children, which I might have been, considering I drew pictures in my spelling book while attending public school. Within the span of a single year, my reading improved and they discovered I had a natural aptitude for math.

I was relabeled from undisciplined to misunderstood. However, one fact remained. I had some ground to make up; and for some time, I classified myself as a slow reader. Later, in fifth grade, another discovery was made. It seems that Holy Redeemer solved my talking ‘problem,’ but they never saw the real problem. I needed glasses. In fact, it was one of the reasons I talked in class. I lost interest in the lessons because I could not see the chalkboard from the back row (my last name, at the time, started with an 'R' and seating in the public school system was alphabetical order).

By the time I was in seventh grade, it made sense that I wanted to take the easy way out. I chose a novella with a science fiction twist; something about a future where people could replace any organ they wanted in a vain attempt to defeat the natural aging process. While the story is interesting, it never had a lasting impact on me.

I finished my hundred-some pages and book report in two weeks, a record pace, faster than anyone else in the class. As the only one to have completed the assignment, Mr. Pyle freely admitted that I had earned not only an A, but the highest grade in my class to date. I thought I had it made for the rest of the semester, but Mr. Pyle was not content to let me sit in his class and twiddle my thumbs. He told me that he knew I was trying to take the easy way out and that he hoped I would accept his challenge to keep the highest score in the class by taking on a second assignment.

He handed me a copy of Dune by Frank Herbert, a huge book in comparison to my first choice. I accepted the challenge and it became one of my favorite books because it was so easy for me to read. For those who do not know the story, a short summary might be that it was about a fatherless boy in a new and foreign land who possessed hidden talents that were waiting to be unlocked.

I won't go into the details, but I related to the story. Given this small section of history, it is also no surprise that I related to a reader's editorial that was published in the Review-Journal last Sunday. It was written by the teacher whose frustration with with our area's failing school system seems to have manifested itself into the notion that not all schoolchildren have the same potential. While she certainly raised some valid points in her piece, I can only hope some aspects of the article never solidify into a popular movement to shuffle underperforming students into trade schools like they do in Europe.

Please don't misunderstand me. I appreciate the plight of teachers in southern Nevada more than most; I am friends with several who are working in other trades after being disenfranchised by the school district. However, I am also hoping that the teachers who are still working here, despite their less than perfect working conditions, do not lose sight of the fact that when people ask the wrong questions they tend to find excuses instead of answers.

Contrary to this teacher's editorial, all children DO have an equal potential to excel and the burden, however unpleasant, undercompensated, or unappreciated, is probably a teacher's most important job. Otherwise, someone who might later become a professional writer and communication strategist might be mislabeled and ushered off to trade school not because they lacked motivation or intelligence, but because they needed glasses. Thank goodness for those few teachers like Mr. Pyle who took the time to call one child's bluff and help them realize a lifelong love for reading, which later became writing.

So what am I reading today? While I certainly read entertaining works that range from Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Hiding Place by Corrie Tenboom, I also read more significant works. Recently, I finished 1776 by esteemed historian David McCullough, which I originally picked up because of my interest in history and politics. And while a few of my friends have found it a curious choice, I recently started reading In Search of Schodinger's Cat by John Gribbin.

If you don't know, Gribbin's book is about quantum physics. Believe it or not, quantum physics is a subject that applies to communication and education as much as it applies to science and mechanics. In fact, what I've already learned from this book (and I probably already knew it) is that throughout history, people tend to invent theories, opinions, and ideas and then attempt to operate in boxes shaped by those theories, opinions, and ideas. Then, once they are safely (or unsafely) wrapped up in their boxes, they stop making progress until, finally, and hopefully not too late, someone comes along and disproves all those old theories, opinions, and ideas. And that, the ability to break out of the educational box, not trade schools, is what is needed most here in southern Nevada.

4 comments:

RealBadNews on 8/17/05, 2:07 PM said...

I read that editorial in the RJ also, and I couldn't agree more. There are some serious problems in Nevada, and putting people into neatly labled boxes isn't going to solve the problem, so I'm right with you on that.

I'll have to check out the book by Gribbin. :)

-J

Rich on 8/18/05, 7:15 AM said...

If you like Gribbin, you might like the late Feynman too. As he points out in his book "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" ... "most people don't learn by understanding; they learn another way -- by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!"

It's the same with communication ... education ... most things. People are too busy learning models, rules, and tactics to truly understand what they are trying to achieve. They think marketing is about creating a brochure when it's really about finding the most useful vehicle to communicate the right message in order to change behavior. Like Feynman, it's caused me some challenges too at times. I think in strategic processes rather than memorized tactics, which leaves some clients baffled at why what I might propose for them works while others remain too afraid to try it.

Anyway, thanks for the post.

Also, just so there is no misunderstanding, I removed the second comment as it was no more than an spam ad. I welcome any views, any times. Spam ads will be deleted. If you're the poster, memorize that, by 'rote' if you have too.

Cheers.

Jericho Saved on 10/7/07, 7:37 AM said...

Hey Rich,
Just reading old posts and found this one.It's definitely one of your best and one of my favorites. Thank you for sharing. But, you? Talking too much at school? Naw, can't see it. HA!

Rich on 10/7/07, 8:12 AM said...

Thanks Jane. See... I was still writing about labels as well. Most of the time they are wrong; and we don't really need them.

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