Blowing bubbles

It’s a Monday night. As usual, I open Timothy’s homework folder and read the photocopied note from his teacher that explains where the class stands on the teaching calendar. The note mostly includes information about math concepts and spelling words. I remove the staple from the sheaf of worksheets and divide them into daily assignments that seem manageable to both Timothy and me. Mondays are dedicated to math.

Timothy and his classmates have been assigned three worksheets that focus on number families and require simple addition and subtraction tasks. Timothy is well trained. He begins by putting his name and last initial atop the page and then a large number 14 encased in a circle. I’m used to this requirement but still stymied by its purpose. In a class of 20 students the teacher needs a number to identify the students in her room? I would think by now that the teacher would be able to identify student work merely by glancing at the penmanship.

I doodle while Timothy completes the front side of the worksheet. I pay attention as he reaches the bottom of the page, reads the directions, makes a mental calculation and then bubbles in his answer. He is in first grade and he bubbles in answers. The bottom of every math worksheet he completes has been graphically designed to mimic a standardized test form. Timothy spends more time neatly coloring the bubble than he did on the calculation that produced the answer.

“How do you know how to do that?” I ask.

“Mrs. Garcia taught me.”

“What do you mean she taught you?”

“We practice doing our bubbles in class. Everybody in the class practices until they get it right.”

“Get what right?”

“The bubbles. Doing the bubbles right, dad. When you were a kid, did you practice bubbles?”

Well, as a matter of fact, I did. I practiced blowing bubbles with gum and I practiced blowing bubbles with little plastic wands.

If curriculum indeed shapes the worldview of students and colors their self-perception, what are the effects of lockstep curriculum on my child? My son is 6 and he knows there is one right way to do things and that there is one correct answer, an answer that is most easily identified by neatly filling a bubble. At school, my son is being taught that knowledge is codified and that it must be received. At school, he is being taught that knowledge can be summarized at the end of a book or chapter. That’s not the way I read a book unless I’m in school. That’s not the way we read a book together while we sit in our big comfortable bed. I don’t ask him comprehension questions. If Timothy wants to discuss the story, the pictures or the meaning of a word or concept, we do. If he wants to leave the book on the floor and then play video games, or watch a little television, or play one of a score of board games with his brother and me, we do.

This is a battle I’m quickly losing. One of the leveled readers I bought, a collection of Clifford stories published by Scholastic, contains six books. Each book is followed by comprehension questions about the story and then a narrative-sequencing problem. I never ask Timothy to even look at this section but that doesn’t stop him from eagerly tackling the questions on his own. Sometimes he wants to do the quiz before he’s read the story. He has learned that knowledge cannot reside in peace. It must be tested. Immediately.

At school Timothy works alone on tasks in short, predetermined time frames in which a bell signals the end of a work period. His teacher tells him that in school he and his classmates must work fast. Speed is of the essence. She tells him that he can take his time at home. If Timothy finishes his work early, which he most often does, he is told to help classmates that are slower. Collaboration consists of getting others up to speed. This process surely models factory work, and like factory work, earns ill will for the fastest workers. Will Timothy receive a bonus for his increased productivity? Of course. He will be asked to do more work and given one or two gummy bears. This sounds like employment in the former workers’ paradise known as the Soviet Union. I want my son to be knowledge capitalist. I haven’t taken an absolutist approach to rewards the way Kohn has because I’m a big fan of frequent flyer miles, but I want my son to be given free time when he finishes his worksheets. Then, perhaps, he can engage with his learning. And practice making bubbles – the good kind.

You can follow me on Twitter at davidBIE

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