Yesterday, in the grocery store, I reconnected with a former student. Ten years had passed since he was in my class. Ten years is huge in the life of a child. This particular young adult was bright-eyed, conversant, personable and, to my amazement, able to recall quite a few incidents from his 6th grade year, the year I was his teacher. He told me that was the year he learned to love reading. He asked if students today still read “A Wrinkle in Time,” (not so much anymore) and then, he topped off his walk down memory lane by telling me he still had the novella he wrote in my class. “It was my first book,” he added.
He isn’t the first student who told me he learned to love reading and writing in 6th grade. I’ve had a few journalists, English teachers and even a novelist come back and report to me over the years. But for some reason, yesterday, the words warmed my heart more than usual. Maybe it’s because this year is particularly frustrating, 39 students in a room designed for 25, old programs thrown out for new ones with structures that appear nebulous and haphazard, the reinventing of a wheel that falls apart upon not too close inspection.
I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen whole language replace phonics, Anita Archer rise and Madeleine Hunter sink, and cursive handwriting bite the dust. I’ve seen, in an effort to stimulate creativity, grammar and spelling thrown out in exchange for a kind of accepted stream-of-consciousness writing that would make Faulkner and Joyce look like staunch fundamentalists. I’ve seen desks arranged in rows, desks arranged in groupings of four, six and eight only to return to rows again, this time with chairs pushed so tightly together, children sit like cooped chickens counting down to their few precious moments of recess. We wonder why they fidget, why their attention falls short, why they don’t listen. Take a walk through classrooms with desks that can’t be raised another inch, defaced books used years beyond their intended retirement date and air conditioners that, on the hottest of days, blow heat into classrooms without windows.
We fundraise frequently and this year every classroom has a smart board. I’ve heard that students will soon have Ipads. We test as often as we read, more often now that the teaching of novels, according to the latest round of statistics, doesn’t reap the results that staying within the Language Art’s textbook does. I miss the days when discussion was a part of instruction, when teaching wasn’t quite so regimented, when a student could experiment with an essay without his neighbor bumping his elbow, when homework was reasonable.
I wonder, ten years from now, will anyone stop me in the grocery store and tell me she remembered 6th grade because she loved reading the state authorized textbook? Will she remember anything of elementary school other than those few precious moments of recess?