Monday, November 13, 2017

Where Worksheets Are Always Optional

My heart goes out to all those preschoolers who are today and every day being compelled to do stuff, not because it's stuff they need to do, not because it's the good or right thing to do, and certainly not because it's the best thing to do, but because some day down the road, the reasoning goes, other adults are going to seek to compel them to do things they would rather not do and so we might as well get them used to it.

Frankly, I hope they never get used to it. A few years ago, one of my former students moved on to a public school kindergarten where he refused to do his worksheets. While the other kids bent over them, he goofed around. After a couple weeks the teacher, at her wit's end, sent the entire stack of worksheets home with the boy, expecting his mother to march him through them. Both parent and child refused. As I said to the mother at the time, "What are they going to do, expel him? What are they going to do, give him an F in worksheets? And even if they did, what difference will it make in his life?"

Most of the children I teach manage "just fine" (a melancholy measurement, if you ask me) when confronted by the compulsory nature of normal schools. They might not like it, but they resign their noses to the grindstone after awhile and I take pride in at least not being the one who bent them to it. And it's true that many of the kids I teach go on to thrive in public schools despite having spent the previous several years not being compelled in preparation for being compelled, which kind of puts the lie to the arguments of the "school readiness" crowd.

Our playground is built on a slope, making it inevitable that children will regularly get the idea to roll things down it. For the last couple weeks, we've been rolling tires. They wrestle them to the top of the short flight of stairs that descend from the gate, wrestle them onto the ramp they make from a plank of wood, then call out their cautions before letting them go. Other kids, seeking to keep themselves and others safe, create a wall of junk halfway down the hill near the garden, continually repairing it as the tires crash into it. Other children mill about in between, thrilling themselves by standing in the way of the tires, then leaping aside at the last second. At any given moment there will be anywhere from five to a dozen of them engaged in the game in some way, creating, experimenting, cooperating, playing. No one is telling them what to do. Instead, they are doing what they were born to do, asking and answer their own questions about their world and the people they find there.

These children are preparing themselves for life much more directly and effectively than those bent over desks filling out worksheets from which they may or may not be learning anything, but certainly not what they most need or want to learn. Instead, they spend their days practicing for the decades of compulsory schooling that lie ahead, rather than life itself, a place where worksheets are always optional.

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