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Educating Children Should be like Building a Table

Jaime R. Wood

I want to build a table, but I don’t know how. I have the supplies—wood from a hundred-year-old house, tools that I’ve been collecting for a while—but the steps to take elude me. I’ve started the project already. The first step was easy enough: remove the nails that were there from when the wood held the shape of a porch. Done. Except one small problem. The wood, being a hundred years old, held those nails in better than I expected, and those nails were pretty rusted, so most of them came out, but some of them I pulled and pulled and they lost their heads or broke in the middle. So that’s a problem I wasn’t expecting.

Besides that small issue, which I think I’ve already found a couple solutions to, there’s the problem of my own ignorance. I know what a table looks like; I can name most of the parts: the top, legs, sometimes a leaf in the middle. But can I piece those parts together to make a table that can function as a table should, steady and strong, in my dining room for years to come? That’s the problem I’m currently faced with. And it’s an exciting problem because it requires that I use many types of problem solving and ways of thinking about a thing. I have to be spatial. I have to be mathematical and creative. And beyond those, I have to believe that I have the ability to do something I’ve never done before.

This reminds me of being a child. In school, when the teacher asked us to do things that were maybe confusing or seemed completely foreign to us because we were so new to the world, this too was a problem, and it was often met with encouragement or frustration or possibly even disgruntlement from the teacher: “Why, children, can’t you do these things I’m asking you to do?” The relationship between teacher and student, even in the most student-centered classrooms I can recall, including the ones I’ve taught in, was always a bit lopsided. The teacher decided what should be learned and usually how, and if students were lucky they might get to work in groups to accomplish the teacher’s prescribed task. Building my own table was never even an option in my schools, especially for girls. The implication was that children, or students of any age, don’t know what’s best for themselves and must be guided by an outside force to become...what?

That’s the problem, or one of many. When students are treated as though their ideas and interests aren’t meaningful, they are being taught to be powerless. “When you keep children in an externally controlled state, where the teacher is the controller, the disciplinarian, for the entire twelve year spectrum of the child’s basic education the teenage graduate leaves with a serious deficit.”

So what if the job of a school was not to guide students into certain situations or to prompt them into thinking that certain ideas are important and others are not, but what if instead the goal of a school was to help children of all ages solve the problems that they discover themselves in their own lives and the lives of the people around them? What would this school look like and how would it be different from the severely normal schools children are sent to everyday? These are the questions I’m interested in answering, and I think in answering them we will discover one of our Dream School designs.

I recently happened upon the concept of the free school or the democratic school, which has been around since 1921. This philosophy really interests me, but as someone who went through the public school system herself and as someone who received her Master’s degree in English education in order to teach in that severely normal system, I get a feeling of anxiety about the idea of children on their own, willy-nilly, making their own decisions. What would be the outcome?

From the five years that I worked with small children and taught middle school, I can accurately make the claim that children, left to their own devices, with just a few tools at their disposal—and these tools can be wide ranging, defined in many ways—can do amazing things. I would also make part of that claim that the products that come from their creative processes are even more amazing, unexpected, and unique the less the adults around them prompt, direct and redirect their ideas. So I’m convinced that children can teach themselves by just being in the right atmosphere, having the right tools, and being around others who are also working on their own creative projects. I’m convinced that children will create, learn, and become more themselves, and there are many schools already in existence such as Sudbury Schools, The Albany Free School, and The Reggio Emilia Approach that support this claim.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with four children—ages two, five, ten, and twelve—who were the nieces and nephew of a friend of mine. We did typical summer activities: played outside, did crafts in their grandmother’s craft room, and visited their town’s festival in the park. In between these more organized events, the children did what children do. They roamed around the house finding ways to entertain themselves.

On the morning of the second day of my visit, my friend and I walked into the children’s house to a scene that might have looked like chaos to some, but was really a dynamic form of self-regulated learning. The ten-year-old girl greeted us at the door to inform us that she and the rest of the family were still in their pajamas but that we could still enter if we wanted. The twelve-year-old girl was carrying a basket of clean laundry into the living room to sort, fold, and put away. The five-year-old boy was carrying around a squishy, gummy skull saying, “He’s lost his eyes.” (They were apparently rolling around inside the skull.) And the two-year-old girl came into the room with a set of paints and asked her mother to paint her, meaning that she wanted the paint to go on her own face. The mother was busy getting ready to go somewhere and didn’t have time to stop and paint the toddler’s face, so the girl moved on to one of her older sisters, who was quite good at turning her into a clown. This provoked her brother to ask for a new face, so she gave him a handlebar mustache, and he jumped around the room with his little sister singing, “We’re clowns! We’re clowns!” while making up dances and funny clown noises.

In the meantime, the two older girls had gotten to work on something that looked rather serious up at the breakfast bar, so I moseyed over to check it out.
“What are you working on?” I asked.
“A survey,” the oldest replied. “You wanna take it?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Okay,” and in a most earnest tone she announced, “The survey is called, ‘What Kind of Toilet are You?’ and there are a few questions you’ll have to answer to find out.”
I laughed thinking the survey would probably be really silly or kind of gross, but as it turned out, the girls had made a survey that did a fairly good job of judging my personality based on a few questions about my hygiene. I learned that I’m a hotel toilet because I’m usually clean and get along with a wide variety of people. Brilliant, I thought.
“Who came up with this idea?” I asked.
“I did,” said the oldest.
“Yeah, she made it, but I tested it until it was right,” explained the ten-year-old. So they’d worked together, revising and redesigning, until they were ready to use their survey on a real audience, me.

Later that day, we’d left the two older girls at the festival with their mother, and the toddler was lying down for a nap. The five-year-old boy and I were left to our own devices in his grandmother’s craft room. His aunt, my friend, was next to him playing Sudoku on her laptop; I was answering emails on my smart phone, and the boy was drawing. After a few minutes, my friend also laid down for a nap, and the room became very quiet. The boy came over to me with all of his drawings and asked, “Do you know how to write words?”
“Can you write some words on my pictures?”
“Sure. What do you want me to write?”
He looked me dead in the eye and made a gurgling noise. I raised my eyebrows. “That’s the word you want me to write?”
“Yeah.” And he repeated the sound.
“Okay, this is cool. We just have to figure out what letters of the alphabet make those sounds. Do you know your alphabet?”
“No,” he said.
“A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” I sang. “Do you know your letters?”
“Oh, yeah, I know those.”
“Okay then. We can make any word you want with those letters.”
We spent the next ten minutes or so looking at each other very seriously, making strangle motor-like noises, and deciding which letters should represent those noises. At one point, I wrote down a “J,” and he thought the sound was really more like “G,” so we changed it. It was the most fun I’d ever had talking to a five-year-old about the alphabet. And when we finished, he put the pages together, stapled them, decorated the cover, and declared the project a successful gift, a book, for his father who was out of town.

The exciting thing about these anecdotes is that they are common. Spend a few hours with children, and they are likely to create something, learn something new, and ask a million questions about things they don’t know. And all of this happened with these children while they were on vacation and hanging out with family. Imagine what they could create if they had set goals for themselves; allotted time, space, and resources to accomplishing those goals; and had other children and adults around to help them when they got stuck. How long would it be before the five-year-old was writing his own words? And the ten-year-old who was so good at face painting was also a skilled quilt-maker. What problems could she solve with these abilities?

As Ken Robinson states in his book The Element, “...given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed—it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

Which brings me to what education should be for in the first place: to fulfill human potential. Based on the schooling models we’ve been using for the past century, one might think that schools are meant for skill preparation so that students can go on to make a living wage, bring some security and pride to their families, and help society progress as a whole, and that is what many of them mean to be. This isn’t a misdirected goal. But some who believe that the way to create these socially responsible wage earners is to mold students into prescribed information receptacles are misdirected. All stakeholders who have a hand in shaping education for students—namely parents, teachers, school administrators, and politicians—have to realize that the practical goal of raising up children who can pay the bills is not exclusive of helping those children discover who they really are and what powers they as individuals possess as members of a larger community. I would even go so far as to say that young people who “discover their true passions” contribute more fully to the progress of society as a whole.

With that said, I’m going to go outside to work on my table. I’ll probably need to do some Internet research on do-it-yourself table-building, and if I get stuck, I’ll call my carpenter friend to ask his advice. But I have a feeling I won’t find it necessary to sign up for a class. I may not be completely successful in creating the perfect table I’ve envisioned in my mind, but I will learn, and luckily, I have enough wood to start over if I completely wreck everything the first time around. I can already imagine the pride I’ll feel when I finish and can tell people, “I made that myself.”

[1] I’m borrowing the term “severely normal school” from the middle school director at an alternative public charter school where he would talk about traditional schools, those where students shuffled from subject to subject and sat in rows, as “severely normal.” When something is severe, it’s rarely a good thing.

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Jaime R. Wood started working with children twelve years ago as the program director for a before-and-after-school enrichment program called BASE Camp in Fort Collins, Colorado. Later, she taught middle school at Pioneer School for Expeditionary Learning, which is now Polaris. For the past seven years, she has taught writing at the university and community college level. Her book, Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom, was published by National Council of Teachers of English in 2006. She is the founder of Dream School Commons.    

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