"Something very important happened in 1948," I began. "Anybody know?"
Blank stares from these sixth and seventh graders.
Someone tentatively said, "The Holocaust?" Another student said, "The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima?" Ummm, no.
Trying to give them a hint that what happened occurred in the Middle East drew some more blank stares.
I finally ended up having to give these kids a twenty-minute crash course in 20th century Israeli history - and all because I had an idea for a whole-school mural that these kids must contribute images for.
Yesterday was the first time ever that I felt like there wasn't enough time to really work with a group of kids. Blessedly, the kids' "homeroom" teacher in religious school let them stay longer than just the 30-minute allotted class time for art because she felt they were only beginning to grasp the ideas I was throwing out at them. Some good stuff pertaining to the symbols of Israel - the Israeli flag, the seal of Israel - came from the students, as well as some images related to the chalutzim, the early pioneers who made the desert bloom even before Israeli statehood, and to some of the wars that have been fought through Israel's 60-plus year history as a modern state. But the students' knowledge of figures such as Theodor Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Abba Eban, Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir, and many others who played roles in recent Israeli history was sadly nonexistent.
If they were ice cream flavors, perhaps these kids might have taken it upon themselves to know more. Perhaps that might be the next step in their education, actually - if it was traditional for young children in cheder to lick off honey placed on tracts of Torah and associate the sweetness of the honey with the experience of learning, then the next class I teach will probably be trying to get flavors of gelato made that will be associated the most with Moshe Dayan, or Hannah Senesh, or maybe Naomi Shemer.
I'd try to reach more kids in other ways concerning other subjects, but I've always had the feeling that trying to teach children the basics in secular schools involves fighting an uphill battle with implementing increasing requirements put upon the teachers that will keep schools and students up to certain standards versus actually attempting to impart a love of learning and a good sense of critical thinking into students - which is what got many people into teaching in the first place. I've seen too many teachers whose idealism is wearing thin and turning to ragged disillusion. And I can't decide if it's good or bad to have it confirmed by statistics and by one of the experts in the field:
It is a Faustian bargain. When teachers lose control of decisionmaking—when they prepare students for tests they have no role in designing (and often no belief in), when they must abandon units they love because there is no longer time, when they must follow the plans designed by others, when they are locked in systems of instruction and evaluation they don’t create or even choose—they will not be relieved of stress. Their jobs are not made easier, they are made harder and more stressful. While some find a way to resist, others acquiesce, though they feel, as one teacher put it, that “the joy is being drained out of teaching.”I want to see the school administrators, the reformers, and the diehard NCLB supporters, after they have eventually fully eliminated the undervalued "middlemen and women" in the classrooms, go in there themselves and actually try to earn the paychecks they are getting for treating faculty as pawns and, ultimately, scapegoats in what is seemingly a business to them with only one product in mind- educating the young. The end to be worked toward is admirable, but the means by which we are attempting to get there is wearing on the people who need the way to be easier, more open to suggestions and decisions on their part, and who need to feel less like puppets and more like people who actually have a say in what is being done and what is being asked of them.
It will surely be argued that I am too optimistic here, that only a small percentage of teachers can or will take on this more creative work. That there is not time in a school day. Not enough support. It is too haphazard and unsystematic. Too slow. That it is only realistic to rely on ready-made materials, rubrics, lesson plans, and scripts that will bring focus and consistency to instruction. That teachers appreciate the way various programs lift the burden of decisionmaking. That instruction in subjects like reading and math is just too complex, the frameworks of assessment too elaborate, for teachers to master.
I will only point out the incredible irony of this position—that some reformers insist on high standards for students, while they have such a low estimation of teachers.
I've been lucky to teach for a few hours a week in a religious school with an understanding director who knows that sometimes learning can get messy, that there is generally not enough time, that there are goals for learning but we can achieve those goals in any way we like through our lesson plans, and, if we have no clue, we have many resources built up over the years to draw from in planning a day for our kids. We chafe a little at the idea that there are parents who don't take the religious instruction seriously, but we do the best we can.
It's sad to think that fewer and fewer secular teachers don't feel the same.
And if those numbers increase, it will ultimately hurt us all.