Education Opinion

They’re Not Your Children

By Susan Graham — November 15, 2009 3 min read
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It is the picture that captured my attention. In his white dress shirt and dark necktie, he stares into the camera--back straight and hands folded in front of him on the desk. He is serious, focused, and completely on task. He is five years old and he has “assumed the learning position” at his UNO charter school in Chicago.

In the background I can see a classroom of children, all of whom have all assumed the position. The first word that comes to me is compliant. The second is conformity. That’s not surprising, because assuming a position as part of an induction process has traditionally been associated with unquestioned deference to superiors. For UNO students, the induction prepares them to be “assimilated into American society.”

I’m pretty sure that Chris Allen, director of the school, would perceive this as a good thing since he

....Spends a good part of a recent morning visiting classrooms with a check list of the elements of the culture. He notes if students aren't "100 percent" in uniform. Are they wearing tennis shoes instead of the requisite black dress shoes?

Hummm.....Do black dress shoes improve learning? Is there a research base that indicates black shoes are more effective than brown shoes? The reason I ask is because there is another picture showing Allen talking to a little boy in the hallway, and I couldn’t help but notice that Allen is wearing brown shoes. The little boy is not making eye contact. He’s looking down. Is he wondering about the brown shoes too?

He [Allen] also notes whether teachers are making smooth transitions between lessons and whether their libraries are well organized. Have students formed straight lines on the way to the restroom? Are they making noise in class that isn't what Mr. Allen calls "purposeful"?

Hummm....Smooth transitions. Yes, I get that. Organized libraries. Yes, even though “well- used” seems more important, I won’t quibble. But I’m distracted by the bathroom line thing. Does it really matter if the line is straight? As a teacher I understand the importance of regulating of body functions. Experienced educators are experts at calculating fluid intake to align with bathroom break timetables. But even experienced teachers miscalculate sometimes and are really in a big hurry to go. Is it an expectation that Mrs. Smith’s 20 kindergarteners synchronize their bladders?

The [UNO] directors are charged with having students grow academically by 1½ grade levels each school year on average, a goal that leaders of the organization say about 60 percent of students in their K-8 schools in Chicago have reached.

That’s impressive. Especially since a large number of their students are English Language Learners. They also have satisfied parents and a waiting list. UNO students are being prepped for college enrollment and then for leadership roles. But, to my thinking, UNO schools, in a philosophical sense, have assumed a position that may include some false assumptions not in the best long term interests of their students.

UNO schools seem to have assumed the position that students must be thinking with a “school mind” rather than a “summer mind” for learning to take place. But I assume that to develop life long learners, the transition from “school minds” to “summer minds” should be seamless.

UNO schools seem to have assumed the position that total immersion will help Spanish speaking students become fluent in English. But I assume, since grownups can get frustrated when attempting to communicate while traveling abroad, that kindergarteners might really need a little bit of help to make the transition from Spanish to English when their parents drop them off and leave them alone in the strange new world of school.

UNO schools have assumed the position that discipline can best be achieved through conformity and compliance and that conformity and compliance will support the network’s overall mission which is “to foster a culture that can turn out students who are leaders in the community and beyond.” But I assume that the best leadership, more often than not, emerges from individuals who express their knowledge, skills, and thinking in unique and creative ways.

We all make assumptions, because our own values and experiences shape our goals and our behaviors. Like Dr. Evil with his Mini Me, we delight in children who mimic our own values and goals. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems to me that as educators we have a responsibility to tread cautiously. When we look into their eyes, we must be careful not to seek out a reflection of ourselves. Rather, we need to see what Kahlil Gibran saw when he wrote

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

Picture courtesy of Education Week

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.