Showing posts with label education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label education. Show all posts

09 June 2017

Graduation Day!


By Art Taylor

Today, our son graduates from school!

...pre-school, that is.

He's only five. 

Dash will be starting kindergarten in the fall, and someone mentioned recently that there might be a kindergarten graduation next year too. We'll see how that goes when we get to it.

I'll admit straight out that I myself once scoffed at the idea of a graduation ceremony for five-year-olds or six-year-olds—or heck, even at the idea of a graduation ceremony at elementary school or middle school or junior high, whatever they term those divisions these days (we're learning ourselves with each new year). While I have no doubt that each of these stages might mark significant milestones, the need for pageantry around every move seemed... unnecessary, excessive, maybe even a little ridiculous.

I can't say I feel that way anymore.

Maybe part of that change of perspective is grounded in simple bias—now it's our child briefly in the spotlight—but I do think it's more than that. It's not just having our child in the spotlight (to shift emphasis) but having our child go through the experiences of preschool that have opened my eyes a little more.

A couple of years ago here at George Mason University, a student in one of the advanced composition courses that I teach commented (ranted really) in the class's online discussion board about the silliness of preschool education at all—basically calling it glorified daycare and arguing that kids aren't doing any significant learning at that age, nothing that could really be taught at least. Sadly, one of the teachers at my son's school has noted echoes of the same sentiments from the parents themselves, some of whom have treated her as if she's simply some form of nanny or babysitter.

Needless to say, I disagree with those attitudes.

Kids at Dash's age are like sponges (isn't that the regularly accepted simile?) taking in information all the time, at rates and in quantities far superior to what us older folks might manage. As an example, look at language acquisition—not just how kids learn their native languages but how much more smoothly they can learn different languages in those early years than later in life. Dash can count not only in English but also in Spanish—and in Chinese too. He's picked up words in several languages, songs as well. And he's always coming home with a broadened vocabulary generally, new bits of knowledge, some greater understanding of geography or science or mechanics in the afternoon than he had in the morning.

I'm certainly not arguing that any of the kids in Dash's class could jump into my advanced composition course at Mason and follow our lessons—not at all. But that student who was in that class, who dismissed early childhood education as glorified daycare.... well, I fear that he learned little over the course of that semester himself, little more than he already came in with. The curve of his learning was ultimately low. (Part of that, however, may have been simple obstinacy rather than any inability to absorb additional knowledge.) Meanwhile, the children in Dash's class are just... whoosh!

But education is about more than knowledge, and pre-school is about more than prepping kids for elementary school—and this is where the approaching milestone may mean the most.

Over these last few years, Dash and his fellow students have become far more than friends; they are indeed like a little family—even in many cases playing family, husband and wife or sister and brother, and in the process learning how to be people, how to relate to one another with appreciation and respect, really how to live as good, responsible citizens of the world, and I'm grateful to his teachers for helping to guide those life lessons as much as the traditional lessons on reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. Watching those relationships develop and grow has been magical in so many ways—the stories Dash brings home, the joy he feels about his friends—and it kind of breaks our hearts, mine and my wife Tara's, that he can't take that whole classroom of kids with him to kindergarten next year. Instead, nearly all of these children will be going in different directions from one another—sorted out by zones and districts into the various schools that are part of the complex educational system here in Northern Virginia with its booming population. We'll do our best to schedule playdates and get-togethers with his pre-school friends, of course, and we know they'll all make plenty of new friends in their new classrooms. But at the same time, the move is clearly a significant one—a closing of one chapter, an opening of another, excitement and apprehension in equal parts, and that's not just for the children but for the parents too. The joke is that there are many tears on the first and last days of school, but most of them are from the moms and dads (and the punchline is that it's not a joke).

Somewhere in there is where my perspective shifted about the idea of graduations for five-year-olds.

Dash and his friends have learned a new song that they'll sing together at graduation later this afternoon—a reflection on their time at school. He's very excited about it, and he's been previewing it for us in recent weeks—each time making my wife cry just a little. He gets to wear a graduation cap, get a diploma, eat some cake, and he's excited about all that too. Dash's school invited me to speak at the ceremony as well —just 2 to 3 minutes as part of the program—and I said, sure, glad to. How hard could it be? Tell a couple of anecdotes, thank a few key people, tell the graduating class to enjoy that cake—and then enjoy some myself! The morning after I drafted my comments, I started my stopwatch to read them aloud, make sure I landed loosely within my time limit, and I hope they'll indulge me a little since it clocks in around four minutes—though that timing is approximate at best. Every paragraph or so, I had to pause the stopwatch because I felt myself tearing up. We'll see how well I manage on stage. (I'll update in the comments below—and maybe even include the text of my speech once I've delivered it.)

In the meantime, congratulations to Dash and to all his classmates—and congratulations to all the folks graduating this month, wherever you're at in your education. Celebrate the milestone! Enjoy the moment! Have a piece of cake on me. 






05 June 2014

A Matter of Belief


by Eve Fisher

There's been a lot of talk on-line about a movie called "God's Not Dead" in which an evil atheist professor forces his students to sign a declaration saying "God is Dead" to pass his class.  (Of course the Christian hero doesn't and wins the day.)  Well, contrary to certain ultra-fundamentalist myths, that doesn't happen.  No professor requires anyone to sign anything against their personal beliefs.  But we do often require them to learn things that don't necessarily agree with their beliefs and therein hangs a tale.


When I was teaching World and Asian history at university, I honestly developed a resentment towards certain types of the home-schooled.  There was the guy who, when I started talking about Charles Darwin, put down his pencil and refused to take a single note.  He didn't care that I wasn't teaching science but history. He didn't care that Social Darwinism was a major part of racism, militarism and WWI.  He wasn't going to learn about Darwin.  Period.

There was another who, when I asked for the connection between the Mexican Revolution and Karl Marx, wrote "Communism is a failed ideology".  (By the way, the correct answer is that Mexico claims that its revolution was the first Communist revolution, which it is.)  He wrote this for EVERY question about Communism, and I gave him a zero every time.  Communism was a huge problem for a number of people, by the way.  They just didn't want to have to learn about it, since, after all, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Empire was destroyed, and Communism was dead.  (I'd remind them about China, and sometimes there would be a moment of silence followed by a long sigh as most of them picked their pencils back up.  But not all...)




There was always one person who, when I was teaching about Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, etc., had to explain to the class how Christianity was the only true religion.  Sometimes they would demand to know my beliefs, and I would say "I'm here to teach history, not proselytize", but they wouldn't get the hint. In fact, they usually decided that I must be an atheist, since I didn't let them preach to the class.  That or I was a Roman Catholic, and if you can see the logic to that, please explain it to me.


The connecting thread here is that these people all thought that learning ABOUT something was the same as believing IN it.  They really felt that if they learned about a political alternative, like socialism or communism, or a religious alternative, like Buddhism or Islam, they were (1) accepting it, (2) approving it, (3) in danger of becoming it.  Even though they had no problem hosing up all the info they could get about Nazis or serial killers.  Sometimes  they could take it if it was far enough in the past - I could talk paganism till the cows came home, and discuss Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism and Epicureanism.  Although they did get a little nervous when I'd point out the points in Platonism and Stoicism that had been adopted by early Christianity...

But, as I said, I developed a resentment.  I got so sick of trying to teach them that learning about something outside their comfort zone was not me trying to convert them, but was quite simply trying to get them to understand how the world got the way it is, today.  I had to teach them how to learn fearlessly.  And in the process, I realized how much the concept of learning about something = believing in something is a wonderful tool to control people. I don't know what these students were being taught at home, but I do know that if you scare people so they won't learn, you can tell them almost anything.  You have gotten them to put bars on their own minds, which only makes it harder to ever get them off.




Orwell got these statements straight from Jean Jacques Rousseau's "The Social Contract".  But you'd have to have taken notes in my class to know it.