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Connections: Listening To Dewey

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It is not entirely clear how Rusk--which is by no means unique in this country--deteriorated to the point of "chaos.'' There's plenty of blame to go around. Teachers blamed the principal and the problems of coping with a student body that was mostly poor and from immigrant Hispanic families; one-fifth came from two nearby homeless shelters. The principal blamed the teachers and the district for not providing adequate resources. The parents blamed everybody.

Today, with a new principal and an almost entirely new teaching staff, the school is clean and orderly, morale is high, and student performance has improved significantly.

One can surmise from reading Dewey that he would have found Rusk's problems to have deeper roots--the organization and practices of traditional schools. Dewey deplored the traditional school's "passivity of attitude, its mechanical massing of children, its uniformity of curriculum and method.'' He summed it up by noting that the center of gravity in schools is outside the child. "It is in the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child himself.''

In Dewey's taxonomy of sins, isolation ranked high, for isolation is the enemy of human interaction and social organization, the lack of which always leads to waste. He would very likely argue that Rusk, like many urban schools, became isolated because it did not adapt to the changing reality surrounding it. The tragic consequence when that happens is that the school becomes irrelevant to the child, and, as the child comes to realize that, he or she loses respect for, and interest in, the school. Confining children for six hours a day in a place where they don't want to be is a prescription for failure and chaos.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians is taking pains to ensure that the new Nay Ah Shing Schools they built with profits from their gambling casinos are relevant to their children. As the story beginning on page 26 describes, children are studying the Ojibwe language, which was headed for extinction, and are learning the history and cultural traditions of their people. Their ancestors were self-sufficient 200 years ago. They built houses and villages; hunted, fished, and gathered; made their own clothes, canoes, and tools. But intertribal wars and the exploitive policies of the state and federal governments ultimately condemned these proud, free tribes to reservations, unemployment, poverty, and alcoholism.

By devoting their new-found wealth to education and the community, the Mille Lacs Ojibwes are seeking to restore the independence, pride, and self-esteem they lost. When students weave baskets, fashion beaded dresses, and make moccasins, they are not simply "doing crafts.'' They are emulating the lives of their ancestors. John Dewey, who believed that the weaving of a basket, in the proper circumstance, could open a world of learning for a child, would have approved.

He would not be thrilled with the drill-and-practice, back-to-basics approach Rusk and the Nay Ah Shing Schools are taking, but he would like that they are orderly, warm places with a sense of community. He would agree that the potential now exists to make the child the center of gravity in these schools.
--Ronald A. Wolk

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