Monday, January 23, 2006

Revamping Education

I have read a great number of news articles over the years by writers, reporters, and politicians who think they know what the answer is to the woes of public education in America. That may be fair, as I do my own share of taking on literature, the news, and politics. Recently, however, I find myself brainstorming in increasingly alternative directions. My most ambitious hope would be to reorganize the graded system that provides about 13 years of public education, roughly divided into elementary, middle, and secondary levels.

Since we know that brain development is tremendous from birth to age two, and that the rate of learning remains incredibly high through age six, starting to teach kids at age five is too late. Perhaps this system was more excusable when educated mothers were at home with their small children or when early brain development was less scientifically understood. Today, however, many small children end up in unstimulating environments, with parents or day-care providers who are not fully aware of how to tap the learning potential of infants and toddlers.

According to our current understanding, then, formal public education should begin with one- or two-year-olds and informal education of parents and children must begin with the birth of the child. This need not stand in the way of parents who wish not to enroll young children in school; they can raise their children at home, as homeschoolers do today with young people of any age. For many people, though, early education would start with a five-day program which required the participation of parents one full day a week. Teachers of children in their first two years of life would primarily teach parents how to provide a stimulating and nurturing environment for their children.

A child would enter the next four stages based on readiness for the type of learning required and the level of emotional development around which each style of learning is focused. The youngest group would consist of what we now call pre-school and the early elementary years. Those students would engage in exploratory learning activities designed to prepare the child for our traditional literacy-based program. The mid and late elementary years would be devoted to learning about the world through literacy, while maintaining the exploratory aspects of the earlier years.

Middle level learning would be significantly different. It would begin for different students between ages 11-13, and would be primarily experiential. I would probably organize these schools around a model that might resemble a summer camp. Most schools would be outside, consist of a variety of buildings, and incorporate a very active schedule. The program might be centered around meaningful work activities, social and emotional learning through collaborative activities, and a maintenance of literacy levels of earlier years.

After several years of these activities, perhaps when a student would usually enter eleventh or perhaps tenth grade, students would be given several choices. They would be offered the opportunity to attend technical institutes or college preparatory academies. Others might take up community-based internships or apprenticeships. At this point, the focus would move from social and emotional learning to rigorous, content-based learning. Traditional offerings could be departmental or interdisciplinary, but students would be expected to behave appropriately to an academic setting and maintain their studies independently. At the end of three to four years, students could complete an associate’s degree (publically financed) and then apply for further studies or for employment.

My hope, in extending publicly funded education from ages 0-20, is that at each stage of development, a form of education appropriate to a person’s intellectual development and to his or her emotional development would be available to help individuals fulfill their greatest potential as ethical, engaged, and motivated human beings.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

On Renewal

For this installment, I would like to share with readers my wishes for the new year for venues from large to small.

For the world

It’s not easy to narrow this down, but I guess I would wish the world a measure of equity. My hope is that the hoarding of resources that causes great pain throughout the world might be alleviated. With a measure of economic fairness might come a reduction of anger and resentment, and with that a reduced inclination to war and atrocity. It’s long past time for people to organize and stand up for a modicum of fairness across geographic and political boundaries.

Bonus: some global cooling so we can get some good snowy winters.

For the nation

I wish for the United States a big dose of humility. I desire to see a world in which the US does not assume it knows better than all other nations on issues of global warming and nuclear defense, one that is able to recognize that terror can be perpetrated by prison guards, corporations, the military, and elected leaders. Poor people who fight may be terrorists, but rich people who oppress surely are not liberators.

Bonus: Democratic control of Congress as a last-ditch rebuke to the recklessness of the Bush regime. I’d like to see a female Speaker of the House, my friend Lauren counsel to the majority staff of the Senate Labor Committee, and a spoiled rich boy from Texas who gets a good spanking.

For my state

May this be the year that the Vermont legislature passes the first single-payer health plan in the country. Of course, passage by the legislature would surely be vetoed by our quietly pro-corporate and pro-big insurance governor. But forcing the governor to veto such a law might demonstrate to folks that our governor is not the gentle moderate so many people think he is. And it would create a path to fair access for insurance.

Bonus: more state holidays, like Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, Poetry Day, and Foliage Day. And closure of businesses on holidays so workers can seize a bit of leisure like those of us in professional fields.

For my city

I wish for the city of Montpelier some affordable housing. Some is on the way, but this city needs to build more places for average folks to live. Not everyone is as wonderfully ethical and generous as my (Republican) landlord. Poor quality, over-priced housing abounds, and it’s time for Montpelier to do the right thing and make this an affordable city for those of us who enjoy it but don’t live on trust funds.

Bonus: a good clothing store for men. I can dream, right?

For my town

For the small town where I teach, I wish compassion. For a community that has been too long in the position of underdog, I wish for them the knowledge that becoming successful is best accomplished by citizens who care about and help each other.

Bonus: a good sit-down restaurant with tasty hot dishes, fresh baked goods, and blue-checked table cloths.

For my school

For the progressive folks there, I wish perseverance. In a climate of worldwide fear and instability, and in a nationwide educational climate that favors testing over real knowledge of the liberal arts (a term that includes science, folks), I wish lots of energy to keep up the good fight for what we know to be meaningful learning and the right treatment and respect for adolescents.

Bonus: smooth sailing for our renovation project.

For myself and those I hold dear

I wish for all of us the ability to make the changes in our lives and worlds that we want to see, and to accept life’s challenges with courage and strength.

Bonus: well for me, it would be nice not to spend another new year’s eve single. Is that really too much to ask? Happy New Year!