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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
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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.

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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.