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They're Not Your Children


It is the picture that captured my attention. In his white dress shirt and dark necktie, he stares into the camera--back straight and hands folded in front of him on the desk. He is serious, focused, and completely on task. He is five years old and he has "assumed the learning position" at his UNO charter school in Chicago. Mini Me.gifIn the background I can see a classroom of children, all of whom have all assumed the position. The first word that comes to me is compliant. The second is conformity. That's not surprising, because assuming a position as part of an induction process has traditionally been associated with unquestioned deference to superiors. For UNO students, the induction prepares them to be "assimilated into American society."

I'm pretty sure that Chris Allen, director of the school, would perceive this as a good thing since he

....Spends a good part of a recent morning visiting classrooms with a check list of the elements of the culture. He notes if students aren't "100 percent" in uniform. Are they wearing tennis shoes instead of the requisite black dress shoes?

Hummm.....Do black dress shoes improve learning? Is there a research base that indicates black shoes are more effective than brown shoes? The reason I ask is because there is another picture showing Allen talking to a little boy in the hallway, and I couldn't help but notice that Allen is wearing brown shoes. The little boy is not making eye contact. He's looking down. Is he wondering about the brown shoes too?

He [Allen] also notes whether teachers are making smooth transitions between lessons and whether their libraries are well organized. Have students formed straight lines on the way to the restroom? Are they making noise in class that isn't what Mr. Allen calls "purposeful"?

Hummm....Smooth transitions. Yes, I get that. Organized libraries. Yes, even though "well- used" seems more important, I won't quibble. But I'm distracted by the bathroom line thing. Does it really matter if the line is straight? As a teacher I understand the importance of regulating of body functions. Experienced educators are experts at calculating fluid intake to align with bathroom break timetables. But even experienced teachers miscalculate sometimes and are really in a big hurry to go. Is it an expectation that Mrs. Smith's 20 kindergarteners synchronize their bladders?

The [UNO] directors are charged with having students grow academically by 1Ā½ grade levels each school year on average, a goal that leaders of the organization say about 60 percent of students in their K-8 schools in Chicago have reached.

That's impressive. Especially since a large number of their students are English Language Learners. They also have satisfied parents and a waiting list. UNO students are being prepped for college enrollment and then for leadership roles. But, to my thinking, UNO schools, in a philosophical sense, have assumed a position that may include some false assumptions not in the best long term interests of their students.

UNO schools seem to have assumed the position that students must be thinking with a "school mind" rather than a "summer mind" for learning to take place. But I assume that to develop life long learners, the transition from "school minds" to "summer minds" should be seamless.

UNO schools seem to have assumed the position that total immersion will help Spanish speaking students become fluent in English. But I assume, since grownups can get frustrated when attempting to communicate while traveling abroad, that kindergarteners might really need a little bit of help to make the transition from Spanish to English when their parents drop them off and leave them alone in the strange new world of school.

UNO schools have assumed the position that discipline can best be achieved through conformity and compliance and that conformity and compliance will support the network's overall mission which is "to foster a culture that can turn out students who are leaders in the community and beyond." But I assume that the best leadership, more often than not, emerges from individuals who express their knowledge, skills, and thinking in unique and creative ways.

We all make assumptions, because our own values and experiences shape our goals and our behaviors. Like Dr. Evil with his Mini Me, we delight in children who mimic our own values and goals. There's nothing wrong with that, but it seems to me that as educators we have a responsibility to tread cautiously. When we look into their eyes, we must be careful not to seek out a reflection of ourselves. Rather, we need to see what Kahlil Gibran saw when he wrote

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.

Picture courtesy of Education Week


Sshhhhh - you're not supposed to let out the secret that "we delight in children who mimic our own values and goals." Oh well - too late. But I will add that I have learned over the years to delight in children I might not have found so delightful when I started out. With age and experience comes a degree of faith that the recalcitrant student, the laggard, the rebel - all have the potential to delight. After you've seen enough students through from 9th grade to 12th, and sometimes beyond, you learn to recognize potential that doesn't walk in the door dressed so neatly or behaving so politely at first. But often, there's a certain spark - a sense of humor, individuality, decency, determination, a keen pride or a surprising humility - something that says to you, this one is special too.

I appreciate your gentle approach. As a parent, I have dreaded the opening day of school, of the instituionalizing on my children. Often assured they'll be okay once we get started, well, yes, even prison inmates learn to behave.

So what are we doing? We measure all our students by test scores. We demand adequate yearly progress, tie it to funding, radically alter our school days to accommodate testing, measure teachers by what students do, eliminate arts and music because they are not the "basics", march in lines, stand in lines, wear id badges, wear uniforms, provide the answers in unison, and we'll beat those Asian kids on those international tests to prove ...?
Last I looked, huge unemployment, banks failing, companies failing, government in gridlock...must be the fault of the American education system. That's how we taught them to behave.

You moved me to tears... as does the somber little boy in the photo.

So glad my mother raised us to the mantra of "Dare to be different." She was also a Gibran fan, as am I. We have to love the quirky and weird kids too!

Keep fighting the good fight, Susan! :)

Thank you, Susan, for articulating some of the frustrations I feel with straight lines and uniforms and conformity. Although I support uniforms because it helped eliminate fights at home with my children, does it matter what color shoes or socks they wear? Is it our desire to make them conform that overshadows our good sense? I would much rather see my students engaged in active learning than "assuming the position" of rote learning that has some merits when learning their multiplication tables but does not help them become critical thinkers engaged in the world around them.

It is important to remember that "thinking outside the box" is a positive trait and not a negative one. It is our "outside the box" thinkers that have brought about changes and innovations that make the world the wonderful place it is.

Our "inside the box" thinkers, our straight line thinkers, our black shoe thinkers, only know about...the inside of the box, where they should stand in line and what color their shoes are.

Conformity 10, Creativity 0.
I'd say the playbook needs a few new pages.

The issue is really sensitive and I'm amazed to see the soft and keen approach of yours. It has made me feel proud that today people are very much concerned about children

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