Or One Key Problem with Some Public School Education
My wife and I were speaking with our 8 year old third grade son this morning — as Marina went over his spelling homework and found some errors and illegible writing. Sasha is a good student, but makes his fair share of mistakes — or rushes so that it is not clear whether he is confused or merely sloppy. Normal — I make my fair share of spelling errors in this blog. But then he said, "I wish my teacher would give us harder words." It is not that he finds the words he gets so easy, but, rather that they seem simple, boring. And he would like a challenge every so often.
Hearing that defined for me a problem I have been feeling all year: the teacher is smart, well-trained, engaged, and concerned. But the focus is so much on making sure that everyone is "getting" the lesson that students rarely have the pleasure of being challenged — the pleasure of trying something out that they are sure to fumble — the pleasure of stretching beyond what they are sure to get right, on to what they are just having a glimmering sense could be true. School is dutiful because it does not recognize challenge as pleasure.
I know challenge leaves some kids out. I know that challenge means failure for some kids. I know that challenge may not be useful for test scores, and presents more difficulties for teachers. But I also know that if school is to engage students it must offer the somatic, visceral, pleasure of thinking, exploring — going beyond what you certainly can do to what you are just beginning to grasp.
This relates to us because what textbooks do is reduce knowledge to the totally tracked and controlled — the bite sized. While trade books can, and should, offer is challenge. We need to engage readers, but we can also take them to unfamiliar ideas, new words, fresh ways of thinking. We offer the pleasure of giving the reader a chance to feel smart, to grow. Years ago the mantra on BBYA was to offer some "stretch" books (almost always fiction) on the list. Well I say we need "stretch" nonfiction in classrooms. And I want teachers to realize (as surely many of them do) that stretching is not a painful requirement, it is a pleasure.