Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Rethinking Elementary School

By Peter DeWitt — September 05, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Approaches based on lecturing by teachers, passive reading of textbooks, and “fill-in-the-blank” worksheets keep students from making decisions, from becoming actively involved in their learning, and from learning how to think and communicate effectively.” Bob Peterson

We are at risk of losing what is important about education. With new mandates and accountability, there is a risk that some of those student-centered experiences may disappear. Some state education departments are making things pretty hard these days but we are bigger and better than the state. We need to step back and take a breath and focus on what is really important. We entered this profession for bigger reasons than state education departments.

When I was a new teacher in Poughkeepsie, NY, I taught in a city school in a suburban district. I understand that sounds odd but it was a big district that sprawled through many different areas in the Town and City of Poughkeepsie. I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondacks and knew very little about city schools. Although I had little experience in that setting, I wanted to find the best ways to meet the needs of diverse learners.

About a month into the teaching experience, I came across Rethinking Schools. For a struggling learner who lost his father at a young age, Rethinking Schools spoke in a language that I could understand. They focused on issues that my students were facing and inspired me with their stance on social justice issues. I not only found my passion in the classroom, they provoked me to think differently outside of school as well. They literally made me rethink the school experience that I wanted for my students.

Rethinking Elementary Education
One of the most challenging tasks in any elementary classroom is to build a community where students respect one another and value learning. Too often, children use put-downs to communicate, resolve conflicts violently, and have negative attitudes toward school and learning. These problems are often based in society. How can one tell students not to use put-downs, for example, when that is the predominant style of comedy on prime-time television?” Bob Peterson

Recently, I began reading Rethinking Elementary Education (2012) which is a collection of stories to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Rethinking Schools. The collection which is edited by all the members of Rethinking Schools begins with an article by Bob Peterson which focuses on classroom discipline. Bob writes that school is meant to be a community of learners.

Too often the things we do in education are top-down. When Bob and the other educators write, it brings those of us no longer in the classroom to a sacred time when the world seemed to stop and the only thing that mattered was what took place in the classroom. When discussions with elementary school children were some of the greatest conversations we had all day. Children have a way of breaking through the pleasantries of adults and they look at things differently, and those are the moments that can help change the way adults think.

If you read Rethinking Elementary Education, keep in mind that Rethinking Schools is known and respected for their stance on social justice issues. There are stories about gay families, non-gender based education, helping students deal with anger and teaching children to speak up when they disagree. Cowhey (2012) writes, “When it comes to issues of family diversity, teacher self-censorship remains the status quo in many schools. Often this is based on the fear of raising potentially controversial topics.” Cowhey goes on to say, “Do not presume that students live in traditional families with both married heterosexual birth parents. (Teachers should) Name a wide variety of configurations possible in the diversity of human families.”

In addition to stories about sexually diverse families, there are also stories about the relationship between teachers and principals and also about culture and ethnicity. They write about the topics that too many people try to avoid.

In the End
Education is very exciting. Every year there are new children and parents who enter the system and they want the best education possible. There are teachers new to the profession who only hear about high stakes testing, mandates and accountability. Books like Rethinking Elementary Education remind us of why some of us entered education, and it was to provide children with a better education than we may have received.

As a student who felt like the world didn’t understand what it was like to have a father pass away, I secretly wished my teachers read stories that had plots that mirrored what I lived at home. Unfortunately, there were not many stories out there and there were even less teachers who would discuss the topics in the first place. Thankfully, Rethinking Schools was created 25 years ago by a group of very progressive educators and we, along with our students, are the better for it.

Connect with Peter on Twitter

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP