Inside the lines

Before dinner, Timothy, my 6-year-old, decided to play school with Christian, who is four. The significance of this episode only can be understood if you know the boys’ personalities. Timothy resembles his mother in more than appearance. He likes rules. In fact, he feels uncomfortable if rules aren’t announced and then religiously adhered to. He expects punishment to be meted out for violations. He thrives on order in a way I find incomprehensible. Six weeks into first grade he has internalized his teachers’ system of rules, which he explains to me with relish on our rides home every afternoon. He enjoys the fact that she assigns class jobs. He proudly announces to us each time his name appears on the job list

A job is a job to Timothy, who as yet sees no social status attached to particular tasks. When he is assigned the job of line “caboose,” he fulfills his duty with alacrity. Most mornings we are the first to arrive in his class’ assigned spot on the playground. When Timothy is caboose he carefully estimates the length of the line and then places his backpack and lunchbox at the end then runs off to play. He returns to the line from time to time to adjust the position of his possessions to account for the arrival of classmates and the space they consume. When the teacher arrives to escort everyone inside, Timothy gently positions the other kids so they are in front of him and he indeed can be the caboose. He is visibly upset if anyone tries to stand behind him in the line.

I’m mystified by his actions. I’m mystified by the need for a caboose. In fact, I’m mystified by the need for a line. I routinely earned the ire of my sixth-grade teaching peers when they saw my class walk from our end of the campus to the cafeteria, where all assemblies and performances were held. The other nine teachers would order their students to line up outside their classroom door, often in two rows, one each for boys and girls. The behavior problems would usually be placed at the front of the line where the teacher could exert proximity control. Meanwhile, my students would meander in singles, pairs, triads or small groups to the cafeteria. Amiable chatter would dominate the trip. As long as they got there in a reasonable amount of time with no major detours I was happy. I spent no time controlling their behavior and never asked them to walk silently. My peers would expend vast amounts of energy trying to keep their lines orderly and quiet. The teachers would look in anger at me while their children looked in envy at my students.

Christian seems to have inherited my tolerance for disorder. By the time he was three I stopped asking him what happened during his day at preschool because he would either lie or deny. Timothy, on the other hand, quite calmly gives a lengthy recitation of the school day’s activity. Christian evinces a total disregard for rules, perhaps even more complete than my own. His multitudinous aunts have warned us that we will spend the next 13 years of our life in the principal’s office trying to justify our son’s behavior. That will be fun for me and not so much fun for the principal.

With those personality profiles in hand, envision the two boys playing school in our family room as I sit about 15 feet away at the kitchen table trying desperately not to alter the dynamic. Timothy moves two small chairs to the boys’ play table and tells Christian that they are going to play school. Christian, contrary to his usual style, readily agrees. Timothy tells Christian to sit down and be quiet. Christian obeys.

I’m greatly disturbed that Timothy has condensed the school experience to sitting quietly while an older person provides direct instruction that is followed without objection or interrogation. At home he actively questions the source of our knowledge when my wife or I make a factual statement. This is a tactic that I’ve encouraged from the day he could speak. He’s only been in school for a little more than a year and he’s already internalized the primary behavioral objectives of a monolithic institution.

I’m even more disturbed that Christian, my rebel, so willingly accedes to behavior that is antithetical to his nature. Christian has never even been in a K-12 classroom yet he already knows a drill alien to the helter-skelter, non-academic world of his preschool. I salve my conscience with the belief that Christian is merely demonstrating hero worship for his older brother.

I chewed on this scene. As a teacher I certainly want students to follow my classroom rules. As a parent there is no doubt that my children will obey me or any other reasonable adult they know. But which comes first, the rules or the obedience? I never called my 11th grade classes to order. Is that because they had internalized the institution’s rules or because they knew they didn’t need to settle down until I provided overt or covert signals that it was time to snap to attention?

The play school scene has hung with me for weeks. It’s made me question the universal appeal of a less directed approach to education. The students who did well in my classroom moved comfortably in a world of open-ended knowledge where the teacher was their co-pilot, occasionally a navigator, in learning. But not all students thrive in a loosely structured inquiry-based classroom. I told parents and students exactly that when they decided to leave the Project Based Learning high school where I taught for four years. Some kids need more structure. But did I believe what I was saying?

How can I promote a model of education that doesn’t meet the needs of all children, especially my own? Or, is this a prime example of the need for educational choice? Let’s hope so.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidBIE

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