Recently, I’ve been delving into the past. My school past, that is. Yesterday, in one of my periodic organizational fevers, I went to the garage and pulled out a box of old school work from elementary school. My mother had thankfully saved it and I, in turn, have managed to carry the crumbling folders and yellowed pages from address to address, from my studio apartment in Manhattan, to the storage bin in Harlem, and out across the river to our New Jersey home, where we clog up the nooks and crannies of our house with far too much paper and books. The both of us are hoarders of the past, probers of the past, in different ways. And as we’ve raised our two boys here, guiding them through the sometimes bewildering maze of their education, our own past, our own experiences in school–for better or worse–flicker and inform some of our passions.
I have always nurtured a nostalgic, glowing image of my elementary school years—siphoned into gifted classes, taught by ambitious, gifted teachers, I remember those years as extraordinary adventures in reading and learning. I wrote and drew and made projects; reams of paper came home each day. Sometimes I wondered if was misremembering or casting those days with a nostalgic hue. But dragging out those boxes, I knew I wasn’t just romanticizing the past. What I immediately noticed was how many projects and book reports we always did—far more than I’ve seen my son do in his years in elementary school.
Beginning in 2nd grade, there was my report on Miles Standish (five others would come, each rewarded with an index card with a gold star). Next came the 3rd grade blue spiral where every Friday we had to bring in a New York Times article that we had clipped, read, and then digested with the “Who-Why-What-Where” pyramid. That same year came the Apollo Project (I’m dating myself) in which I wrote an imaginary diary for the mission, along with an imaginary family debating whether they thought we should spend money on missions to outer space. Or the “Russian Scrapbook”, a collaborative 5th grade project with another student, summarizing all the articles we found about the Soviet Union. Some of those pieces were downright sophisticated and complex for an elementary school student to engage in—a novelist who critiqued the government for sending troops to the “Far East”, while his colleague held a different opinion; a Soviet summit in which the latest phase of their 5 year plans were discussed. I had grown up in a U.N. community, so talking about the world, politics, or even local NYC events, was as commonplace as making scrapbooks for the Partridge Family, so this was simply fun. But I also wonder if it had something to do with the expectations of the times, when teachers saw themselves as guides into the adult world of news and politics, rather than translators making the world accessible to us.
What struck me, in paging through these fading reports is how the teachers simply expected us to go out in the world and forage in newspapers and magazines. That current events, knowing about the world, was a given. The skills we were learning—reading, analyzing, summarizing, even offering an opinion—are probably no different than what my fifth grade son has done throughout his elementary years. However, there were no worksheets with a scattershot of nonfiction topics and directed questions. No textbooks or work books. Simply, we were expected to head out, like hunters and gatherers, and make and ask the questions ourselves. Granted, my sources were either the Encyclopedia Britannica, the New York Times, Life and Look, and my son now has the entire internet at his disposal. Is it a kind of cultural anxiety that in the numbing waves of information, we feel we must now package nonfiction into digestible sheets, with ready-made questions? That we don’t believe they can go out on their own and make something of information? Ask their own questions? That they won’t be naturally interested in the news or recent scientific discoveries or some figure from the past?
I’m sure something has been lost: our own inventiveness with respect to making and doing; our confidence that children can and should absorb the news and all that is going on around them. Maybe it’s time to start clogging up our attic spaces with those old-fashioned construction paper reports.